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Boonville's Quirky Dialet Fading Away

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  • Kim Noyes
    Boonville s quirky dialect fading away Kevin Fagan Updated 10:13 pm, Tuesday, February 26, 2013 *Boonville, Mendocino County* -- Wes
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2013

      Boonville's quirky dialect fading away

      Kevin Fagan
      Updated 10:13 pm, Tuesday, February 26, 2013

      Boonville, Mendocino County --

      Wes Smoot was bahl harpin' the other day with some kimmies at a gormin' region - i.e., chatting with pals at a restaurant - and nobody more than 4 feet away could understand what he was saying.

      Soon, in all likelihood, nobody will understand any of the words he was using.

      That's because the 80-year-old Smoot was speaking Boontling, one of just two homegrown languages in the United States - and it is close to becoming extinct.

      After 160 years of people speaking the oddball, cornpone-inflected dialect invented in and around the tiny, forested outpost of Boonville, Smoot and 11 others are the only ones left who still know Boontling down pat. And the younger generation shows no interest in it.

      In Boontling, that means the language is pikin' to the dusties. That is, getting ready to die.

      "Time was everyone spoke it around here, but it's been a lot of years since then," said Smoot, a retired Caltrans maintenance worker who has lived in Boonville all his life. "Now you speak it to someone who's not a bahl harper (fluent speaker), and they just look at you blank.

      "It's already just about gone, and it's just us old-timers that really speak it now. When we die, that's it."

      Veiled origins

      Boontling was created so long ago, and so on the fly by country folk who didn't keep great records, that nobody knows its exact origin.

      Some say kids came up with it so their parents wouldn't understand their chatter. Others say it was the parents who concocted it. Still others say wives came up with it to gossip secretly about a scandalously pregnant single woman who drifted into town, and then their sheepshearer husbands picked it up and added dirty words to it.

      Whatever. It's a backwoods thing.

      The Anderson Valley, a small gash in the coastal mountains northwest of Cloverdale known for its gourmet wineries and beer, was settled by apple farmers and sheep ranchers in the 1850s, and its biggest town is Boonville. The population has stayed fairly constant at about 700 since the beginning, and the weird language its people concocted has never spread beyond the handful of hamlets in the valley that total about 3,000 residents at best.

      The language itself consists of more than 1,500 words that sub in for English words and can be tossed into conversation to mask the gist from anyone not familiar with it. A lot of words are drawn from relevant local names, and others are just bastardizations of existing nouns.

      For instance, a phone booth is called a buckey walter because a century ago a guy named Walter had the first phone in the area, and he charged a nickel - then called a buckeye - to use it. A moshe, or car, is a truncated form of the word machine.

      A madge, or prostitute, was the name of a long-ago Ukiah brothel madam. And so on.

      No longer passed on

      "Long ago, they used to teach Boontling in the local schools, but it's been at least 30 years since then," Smoot said. "And if the young folks aren't learning it, it's not really getting passed on."

      Coming up with a secret new language was an unusual, but not altogether surprising, product of remote, small-town togetherness, said Charles Adams, an English professor emeritus at California State University at Chico who in 1971 wrote the definitive book, "Boontling: An American Lingo."

      "I never found another language as extensive as Boontling anywhere," said Adams, who specializes in linguistics. Appalachian English, spoken by Appalachian mountain folk in the Southeastern United States, is similar in scope - but nothing else, Adams said, approaches Boontling's homemade breadth with its 1,500-word vocabulary.

      "I found that Boontling was mainly a men's language," Adams said. "The women knew it, too, but it was as if they had to learn it to protect themselves from having their men talk without them knowing what was being said."

      Dirty words

      Naturally, with men driving the lingo, nasty words are of paramount importance in Boontling. Using them is called nonch harpin'.

      "They really came up with them so you could swear without the women knowing what they were saying," said Rod DeWitt, who at 54 is the whippersnapper of the bahl harpin' bunch. "And those are usually the first words you learn, like you do when you learn any language, like Spanish. It's just fun."

      Talk show host Johnny Carson had that kind of fun in 1970 when he had Boonville volunteer fireman Bobby Glover on his show to speak Boontling and asked him about burlapping a bahl dame - that is, making whoopee with a hot gal.

      "Every time I think of the look on Johnny's face, and on Bobby's face, when he asked that on national TV, I just laugh," said 79-year-old Eva Johnson, another of the remaining bahl harpers. "They knew what he was asking, and we in Boonville watching it on TV knew what he was asking, but nobody else did."

      After the Carson appearance, Glover, who has since died, and his friend Smoot did dozens of appearances on television and radio shows, including "Today" and Charles Kuralt's "On the Road," to talk about their curious little language. But that kind of notoriety died decades ago.

      Not much left

      Now there's not much Boontling in town, except for Johnson and Smoot and their ilk jawing over coffee at local cafes along the leafy, old-timey main street, a few Boontling names on beer bottles from the gourmet Anderson Valley Brewing Company - witness Heelch O'Hops, meaning very hoppy - and a rack of Boontling books at the Anderson Valley Market.

      As recently as the 1980s, there were still several hundred Boontling speakers alive, Smoot said.

      "Never heard of that language, but I do speak some Spanish," 13-year-old Shellie Ramirez said one afternoon, sitting with friends outside Anderson Valley Junior High School. "Sounds cool. What is it?"

      DeWitt, an engineer at the brewery who was always fascinated by Boontling and picked it up from his elders, said he could see the language making a comeback if people recognized that it reflects their community directly. But one of the challenges, he and other bahl harpers said, is that the huge influx of Latino farmworkers to the region in recent years has put more emphasis on learning Spanish - and English - for everyone to understand each other better.

      That doesn't leave as much time for extras like Boontling.

      Sad ending

      "The language is based on our lives here - churches, food, ranching, our history, all of it," DeWitt said. "It's still worth knowing, but when it's gone, it will really be gone."

      He watched Smoot and Anderson chuckling over how and when to use to use the word moldunes - Boontling for big breasts, based on a local pioneer woman - and he shook his head.

      "One day it will be like if you looked out there and saw there were no more lilies, or no more oak trees," he said. "If it leaves, you lose part of your heritage - you lose a little part of everyone.

      "That will be very sad if it happens."


      Hear Boontling

      To hear Anderson Valley natives speaking Boontling, go to http://bit.ly/YTWZ0u

      A smattering of Boontling words and phrases

      Some commonly used words and phrases in Boontling:

      Applehead: girlfriend

      Bahl: good

      Bahl harpin': fluently speaking Boontling

      Buckey walter: pay phone

      Greeley: newspaper reporter

      Harp: talk

      Horn of zeese: cup of coffee

      Kimmie: a man

      Nonch harpin': talking dirty

      Pikin' to the dusties: dying

      Shoveltooth: doctor

      Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Boonville-s-quirky-dialect-fading-away-4308006.php#ixzz2M5ihLQqo

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