It was somewhere around 1862 when John Bregartes arrived in the Anderson Valley of California, a little more than a hundred miles north of San Francisco, and founded the little town of Boonville. And it wasn’t long after that when the farmers, ranchers, and loggers who came to live in this fairly isolated community started to develop a language of their own.
Of course, every region’s got one to some extent. If you come to my corner of the world here in St. Louis, for example, you might drive farty-far to get some t-ravs, go to the laundromat to warsh your clothes, and then grab a concrete for a treat. If someone accidentally bumps into you along the way, you’ll likely hear them say “Ope!” and they’ll expect you to respond with a friendly, “You’re fine.”
We’ve all got our little quirks, maybe made slightly more accessible by the mingling and spreading of regional expressions across the internet where I learned not so long ago that a take-a-plate dinner in New Zealand is the same thing as a potluck supper in the Midwestern US.
But what Boonville, California has going is much more than a few quirky expressions that rose up over time. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it had an entire language all its own.
Though Boontling is based on English, it contains more than a thousand unique words and expressions that show influence from Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, and Indigenous languages and is peppered with the names and experiences of generations of Boonters.
So, Bucky Walter is a payphone, because bucky is the word for nickel and a guy named Walter was the first person in town to have a telephone. To me this sounds a little like getting directions from a local that include turning left at the corner of the field Fred used to own that once had that big red barn that burned down thirty years ago. Except it’s a whole language with standardized grammatical patterns and there’s no GPS to guide you to the right address.
No one is quite sure why the small town invented its own language, though there are plenty of stories. Most suggest that it was a convenient way for one group of people to speak secretly about another group (wives gossiping about husbands, elders wanting to exclude youngsters, or vice versa), which led eventually to the tightknit residents of Boonville using it to keep themselves to themselves when strangers came to town.
The real mystery to me, however, is why it has persisted for so long. This peculiar language which has never traveled much outside of the Anderson Valley and has probably never been spoken by more than a thousand people at any time its history, has existed for nearly a century and a half. How cool is that?
Unfortunately, the number of fluent speakers has dwindled in recent years to include only a handful of people. Over the years it has generated lots of interest for linguists, but not as much for the youngest generations of Boonters. One source I found laments the fact that the elementary school no longer teaches Boontling, which indicates that at one time it did.
The Anderson Valley Historical Society would like to keep the language alive a little bit longer and has provided a nice glossary to get you started if you’ve a mind to learn to harp Boont on the Bucky Walter. Maybe you can even get together with your apple head, pike to grab aplenty bahl steinberhorn, and have yourself the bahlest harpin’ session you ever had. Or you could just stick to English and go out for concretes.