CLOSE

There's a Century-Old Secret Jargon Still Spoken in California

What do the English, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, and Pomoan (of Northern California’s Pomo tribe) languages have in common? Despite being linguistically all over the map, they converge in a wild little corner of Mendocino County called Anderson Valley, where an esoteric gallimaufry of all four tongues has been spoken since the 1880s.

Take the curly, redwood-lined Highway 128 up a mountain for about 45 minutes off either the 101 or the 1, and you'll come to the metropolis of the valley, Boonville, California, population 1035. The town's remoteness has shaped it, sandwiched as it is between two mountain ranges and mostly blocked from the rest of civilization—especially when it was settled in the mid-1800s. A railroad wasn't built for the first 50 years or so, and even today, it's not easy to get in or out of the valley. In other words, it’s the perfect place to grow its own jargon. 

Jay Bergesen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

With fewer than 100 speakers left today, Boontling—derived from "Boont," an adjectival demonym, and "lingo"— reportedly began as an extensive slang spoken by the town's kids to avoid being understood by their parents. Once the adults got a hold of it, it soon became a community-wide game of Password, wherein folks would invent new phrases and try to pass them off into conversation to see if others could divine their meaning in context. It was also useful if you didn't want to be understood by outsiders. 

Because it includes more than 1000 words and phrases, Boontling is often mislabeled as a language, but its syntax and grammar are based on English, as are the ways in which the words and terms are constructed. It’s perhaps best thought of as a specialized vocabulary developed on top of English, like a professional jargon or secret slang.  

It can be confusing, though, because Boontling is also largely comprised of loanwords—sourced from the Spaniards who colonized the region, the Scottish emigrants who built the town, and the region's Pomo tribe. For example, doolsey is candy (from dulce, Spanish for "sweet"); chigrel is food (from chig, Scottish Gaelic, "to chew"), a bosh is a deer (from the Pomoan word for deer, bishe). 

Apple peeling, from gano (sometimes spelled “gannow” in Boontling), a Spanish word for a kind of apple. Hedge can also refer to a haircut. Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

Eponyms abound in Boontling as well. Bill Nunn was a Boonter who liked a lot of syrup on his pancakes, and so you might be asked to “pass the Bill Nunn” if you stop for breakfast at the Redwood Drive-In. A native who was known to be bashful was immortalized in the Boontling word for "embarrassed": Charlie Balled. Fratty is another name for wine, after an area winemaker called Frati. 

A bucky is an old, politically incorrect name for a buffalo nickel, referring to the Native American head depicted on one side, while walter is Boontling for telephone, as a fellow named Walter was the first in the valley to own one. Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

Other words are plain old abbreviations and write themselves: a rack is a raccoon, a man with the initials Z.C. had a rep for brewing a strong cup of coffee or, as it's now known, zeese. There's also a fair quantity of off-color terms (nonch harpin’s), such as burlapping, which is what a store clerk and his girlfriend were found doing in the back room on a pile of burlap sacks one day. Horning, although it sounds like it might be related to burlapping, means "drinking," as a horn is a cup or glass. (A Viking’s drinking horn comes to mind.)

The Anderson Valley Brewing Company wishes you bahl hornin’ or good drinkin’—bahl (sometimes bal) is an old Scottish slang word for “good” or “of good quality." Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

There's so much English in Boontling that you might think it would be relatively easy to understand, but consider this baffling translation of "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" from a booklet titled A Wee Deek on Boont Harpin's, printed in 1967:

Cerk, Cerk, the tooter's tweed,
Strung a borp and shied;
They gormed the borp
And dreeked wee Cerk
And he piked plenty greeneyed.

Contrast with:

Tom, Tom, the piper's son,
Stole a pig, and away did run;
The pig was eat
And Tom was beat,
And he went crying down the street

There was a time when just about everyone in Boonville was fluent in Boontling; it was even taught in the schools until about 40 years ago. But you won't hear the colorful jargon spoken by default in the bars and restaurants anymore. As the Boontling-speaking natives die out or leave, they're being replaced by transplants who are generally either older retired types or are there to work, often for the myriad wineries in the valley. Learning an obscure secret code isn't really a priority for either group. 

A handful of locals do still "harp a slib of the ling" (speak a little Boontling), though, and it's not just the old-timers. A pair of young born-and-bred Boonters found hornin' at the Buckhorn Boonville said they were happy to harp with "bright-lighters" (city-dwellers), so concerned were they about the future of their secret code. And they're not wrong to think that things are looking a little grim. It seems the Boontlingers Club, which published the nursery rhyme above, has been defunct for decades. A local schoolteacher ("schoolch") endeavored to teach it at the high school, but nobody signed up to take the class. The men could count the number of known speakers who still live in Boonville on two hands.

So, a few of the village residents are doing their part, bit by bit, if only through evangelizing to tourists. Some Boonters are even making an effort to coin fresh words and keep the original Password-like game going. Somewhat darkly, the newest term in the Boontling dictionary is downstreamer, to describe an old man—a nod to the fact that when a salmon is headed downstream, it's on its way to die. Here's hoping that the unique jargon, cobbled together with wit and care over the course of more than a century, doesn't suffer the fate of those aging salmon quite yet.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
language
How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
iStock
iStock

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
language
Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
iStock
iStock

According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios