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What is Boontling?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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Boontling is a folk language native to the Anderson Valley of Northern California. Like many regional dialects, it is spoken by a limited number of speakers, and some speakers fear that it will “pike for the dusties,” a way of saying that it will disappear. The language attracted brief attention when it was featured on National Public Radio in the late 1990s, shortly before the death of its most well-known ambassador, Bobbly Glover, but like most folk languages, Boontling is not widely known outside of its home region.

”Boontling” translates as “Boonville Language,” a reference to the largest town in the Anderson Valley. Those who speak the language could also be found in neighboring Anderson Valley towns like Yorkville, Navarro, and Philo. This complex dialect is essentially incomprehensible to non-speakers, as there are Boontling words for a wide variety of situations, and the dialect has its own legends, folk songs, and so forth which were passed down through the generations.

The origins of Boontling lie in the late 1800s, when settlers descended upon the Anderson Valley to log, farm, and fish. Some historians have suggested that it probably started out as a private language spoken by children so that they could discuss sensitive topics in front of their elders, and that because children continued to speak it as they grew up, it slowly spread through the community. In addition to Boontling, Anderson Valley natives also spoke English, naturally, but many English speakers seeded their conversations with phrases and terms from the dialect, which itself contains a sprinkling of the Pomo Indian language, Gaelic, and Spanish, reflecting the diverse settlers of the community.

Most speakers today are codgy kimmers, or “old men,” leading residents of the area to fear that the language may vanish entirely, although some attempts at creating a comprehensive dictionary have been made. Some Boontling references can be seen scattered around the Anderson Valley; for example, Boonville's coffee shop is named the “Horn of Zeese,” which means “Cup of Coffee” in Boontling. Payphones in the Anderson Valley also bear a Boontling title, “Bucky Walter,” which means “nickel telephone,” although users might be dismayed to learn that a Bucky Walter costs much more than a nickel to use today.

The dialect floated to the public consciousness again in 2007, when the Eisa Davis play Bulrusher was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Play. Bulrusher was set in the Anderson Valley, and the play contained a number of Boontling references and phrases; the title roughly translates as “foundling”.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Aug 04, 2011

I wonder if it would really be difficult to understand what someone speaking boontling was saying.

I looked up some words and they actually seem quite logical in English. Like, 'briny' means the coast and 'can-kicky' means angry. They aren't all that obvious, but I think that you could probably pick it up quite quickly.

It makes me wonder if more people in that area still speak the language than they are aware of, simply through being exposed to it.

By pleonasm — On Aug 04, 2011

It could be very interesting, because it might be able to shed light on how languages decline all over the world.

There are quite a few languages which hardly anyone speaks anymore, or which have recently gone extinct.

In this case, while I think it is a unique situation, it seems much more likely someone could record all the known phrases of Boontling, than they could an older language. The real tragedy is that older languages are often so vast and complex that it is impossible to truly capture them in writing, or even on tape.

Boontling, while wonderful, has probably not reached that kind of complexity.

By KoiwiGal — On Aug 04, 2011

I think this kind of thing is just fantastic. It is such a testament to community that a language like this can thrive and develop in the middle of a fairly homogeneous country, in terms of languages spoken.

I think it is a shame that it has died out. I wonder if anyone has really studied why it became popular in that particular area and why it then declined. I wonder if it has anything to do with the invention of television.

It's interesting that the children were supposed to have made it up, but why those children and not children elsewhere?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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