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Boonville, California

Boontling Language of Boonville

A local dialect born in the late 19th century is only spoken in this isolated California valley. 

The origins of Boontling are uncertain. Maybe children made the language up so they could talk to each other without their parents knowing. Or maybe it was the other way around. Some say it developed among gossiping women in the hops fields. However it developed, it caught on, and in the late 19th century a new language was born in Boonville, California, that still survives today.

Anderson Valley, the logging region of California where Boontling got its start, was so isolated in those early years that the new language thrived, growing to 1,600 words. It never spread beyond the region. Part of the reason for this was a reluctance on the part of Boonville residents to share their language with visitors. What’s more, while the dialect is based on English, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, and Pomoan (a Native Californian language), many of the Boontling words were inspired by Boonville residents, and are therefore more personal for people in the area.

For instance, the word zeese, for coffee, came from Zachariah Clifton, or “Z.C.,” who brewed a particularly strong cup of joe. A pay phone is called Buckey Walter; buckey means nickel, and Walter was the first guy in the valley to have a phone. The name of the language is a combination of the Boontling word Boont, for Boonville, and ling, short for lingo.

Boontling had a taste of national attention when Bobby Glover (known by the Boontling name Chipmunk, which is someone who hoards) appeared on The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson made a joke in Boontling. In 1971, Chico State University English professor Charles C. Adams published Boontling: An American Lingo, after gaining the trust of the people of Boonville to complete his research.

Now, the language is at risk of dying out; these days Boontling is mostly spoken by Boonville residents in codgyhood (old age). But there is some hope for the future. Local schools have begun teaching the language, and young speakers even have a monthly Boontling study group. It is also used by some local businesses on signs and advertising. The Anderson Valley Brewing Company, located in Boonville, has a “Boontling word of the week” tradition in its taproom, and Bahl Hornin’ (Good Drinkin’) is written across its beer cans and merchandise.

Boontling can be fairly simple to pick up, because it operates grammatically the same way English does. So if you’re a Brightlighter looking to buckeye in Boont, listen to the kimmies and minks harpin’ tidrick. You may get a beemsch from a bearman.

Know Before You Go

Anderson Valley is in Mendocino County, about 2 hours north of San Francisco. It's accessed from State Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) via State Highway 128, and from State Highway 101 via either State Highway 128 or 253. It's a beautiful area with many activities, including wine tasting.