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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.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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