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The mysterious roots of a homegrown language

A few hours north of San Francisco is the town of Boonville, nestled in the quaint Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. Like Silicon Valley, this place is known for its innovations in communication – but in a completely different way.

Boonville has its own homegrown language called Boontling and only a handful of people still speak it. Among them is Wes Smoot, 81, the unofficial king of Boonville.

Smoot and his cohorts meet at the Redwood Drive-In on the central drag practically every day at 4 p.m. Smoot says it’s one of the last places that feels like the town he grew up in. Outside, Smoot says, wine and tourism have turned the friendly, close-knit community into a place full of strangers.

For Smoot, Boontling is a connection to the past. It’s said to have emerged in the late 1800s and every word has a meaning related to a person or event in Boonville. For example, to work hard is ottin’, after a man named Otto who was the hardest worker in town.

But more often than not, Boontling is used to describe salacious words unfit for print. Former Chico State University professor Charles C. Adams published a dictionary of them in his book “Boontling: An American Lingo.” Today, Boonville residents refer to Adams’ publication as “the big book.”

The little book is a pamphlet Smoot prints and distributes around town with a more child-friendly glossary. It has the definitions and origins of words like zeese (coffee) and blue-tail (rattlesnake).

“In order to speak the language and understand the people you gotta know something about the history of the valley,” Smoot says.

That history has cycled from an isolated farming town, to a logging boomtown, to a winemaker’s paradise. But when Smoot returned after several years away from Boonville as a young man serving in the Korean War, and then traveling around the state for Caltrans, he already felt like his childhood home had changed.

Boontling has been documenting those changes word-by-word. Though there’s no recorded history of where the language itself came from.

Smoot’s favorite version of Boontling’s origin is about a young San Francisco woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent up north by her high society parents to have the baby.

“There’s a number of stories, it’s very interesting,” says Robert Nimmons, a volunteer for the Anderson Valley Historical Society. “We’ve heard several stories that the adults developed it so they could talk but the kids didn’t know what they were saying.”

Regardless, there are just a few fluent Boontling speakers left. And even though Smoot and his pals are sure Boonville’s homegrown language will eventually die off, they’re still contributing to the lexicon.

“Another fella and I came up with a new word now, when the salmon go up the stream and spawn,” Smoot says. “Well when you get our age we're downstreamers, we're getting to go back down stream. We're downstreamers now.”

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.

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