This Northern California Town Has Its Own Language

I’ll never forget the first I visited Boonville, California, located 12.5 miles southwest of Ukiah in Mendocino County. We entered the local pub on a Friday evening and were surrounded by obvious Boonville locals – a few older gentlemen speaking some sort of foreign sounding dialect that was undecipherable to us. I couldn’t tell if they were speaking another language or had acquired a significant slur after multiple hours at the bar.

We heard expressions like “Ilden pike to the chilgoory nook,” and “Pike the macdonald to the sea japeway.” It was a confusing experience, until we later found out exactly what they were speaking.

They were speaking Boontling, the language known only to Boonville locals.

Boontling has some words rooted in English, while also incorporating Scottish Gaelic and Irish, and some Pomoan and Spanish. It’s claimed to have been created by local children in the late 1800’s as a language game which enabled them to speak freely in front of elders without being understood.

Boonville is a town of approximately 1,000 residents and due to somewhat isolated geographic location, Boontling never made it further then the outskirts of the town. Today, the language is on the verge of extinction, after the more recent generations of the town never picked it up.

Hear what the locals sound like when they speak Boontling:

While flying under the radar for years, Boonville has become known for its many festivals at its fairgrounds, but even better known for the popular craft beer of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. AVBC’s motto is “Bahl Hornin’,” which is Boontling for “It’s Good Drinking.” Here is a quick explanation of Boontling from people at AVBC:

Here are some common terms from Boontling:

  • Apple Head: A girl friend.
  • Bahl Hornin’: This means “good drinking” and is a way of saying “cheers”
  • Bahlest: excellent or great
  • Barney Flats: Hendy Woods National Forest. A spectacular forest of virgin redwoods, located in Anderson Valley
  • Boont: Boonville. The largest community and focal center of Anderson Valley. Also short for “Boontling”
  • Brightlighter: a city dweller, tourist
  • Buckeye: to relax, loiter; a vacation
  • Charlie Ball: To embarrass
  • Deep Enders: Residents of the town of Navarro, located due west of Anderson Valley and bordering the Pacific Coast
  • Gorm: food, to eat
  • Hairymouth: a dog
  • Harp: to speak Boontling
  • Heelch: a large amount of something (derived from “the whole cheese”)
  • Jape: to drive a car
  • Jeffer: a large fire (A Boonter named Jeff built large fires in his fireplace.)
  • Kimmie: A man or father
  • Mink: a woman or girl
  • Mollies: a woman’s breasts
  • Neeble: no good, worthless
  • Pike: A hike or stroll
  • Poleeko: Philo. The second largest town in Anderson Valley, located 6 miles west of Boonville. (During elections in the early days, town issues were decided by a narrow margin of votes. Boonters said they “eeked it out at the polls” hence, they became known as “poll eekers”)
  • Rudy nebs: pristine, mineral rich, well water.
  • Tidrik: A party; a social gathering. (Probably from “tea drink,” a dialectal expression meaning the same thing.)
  • Yink: boy or son
  • Zeese: Coffee. (A local hunter-camp cook nicknamed Zeese, from his initials Z.C., made bitterly strong coffee.)

So if you ever make your way into Boonville, CA, be sure to study some of the common Boontling terms so you don’t look like too much of a tourist (let’s be honest – they’re gonna know anyway…).

Zach O'Brien

Zach O'Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Active NorCal
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