A nursery rhyme in Boontling

If you’re traveling through northern California’s Anderson Valley and stop at a diner or gas station, you might hear a handful of elderly men using phrases that sound a little bizarre: “ilden pike to the chilgoory nook”, “a hoot hoot jim sheet”, “deke on bonny tonker too”, among others.  Don’t worry, you won’t be expected to know what they’re talking about.  These men are the last speakers of “boontling”, a folk language spoken by a handful of people in the town of Boonville, California that could be on the verge of extinction.

Boontling is loosely derived from English, although few English speakers will be able to understand it.  In the mid-19th century, the settlers of the isolated Anderson Valley began developing their own unique words and phrases for different things.  Most words and phrases are based off English, but there’s also a good amount of influence from Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish and Pomoan.  A lot of the words have origins in the names of people who graced the small and tight-knit Anderson Valley community, so that learning Boontling is almost like a history lesson.  For example, syrup is called “Bill Nunn” after one farmer who put syrup on nearly everything he ate.  Wine is referred to as “frati”, after the name of a man who owned a local vineyard.  Over time, over a thousand unique words and phrases developed, creating what could be considered its own language.

By the turn of the 20th century, Boontling had developed a large following in the Anderson Valley.  In 1970, talk show host Johnny Carson had a Boonville local onto his show, where they exchanged dirty euphemisms.  Local schools used to teach Boontling, but they haven’t done that for some 30 years.  While it had a large following at the turn of the 20th century, the language has declined in popularity, and now there are just over ten people who speak it, all of them much older.

Among the few people who still speak Boontling, there has been an attempt to revive the language.  The Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been trying to introduce Boontling words to its drinkers across the country by giving their brews Boontling names.  The brewery’s motto, “bahl hornin’”, means “good drinking”.  Nonetheless, it’s an uphill battle.  Among the younger generation, it isn’t well-known, and those who do know of it have little interest in learning how to speak it.  With the large influx of Latino farmworkers to the region, there’s a much stronger emphasis on learning Spanish and English.  The ultimate fate of Boontling remains to be seen, although if nothing is done soon, it could “pike to the dusties”.