Kimmies Harpin’ Boontling: A Dying American Dialect?

Boontling, a home-grown American dialect, may soon go the way of dinosaurs and beepers.

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A thin layer of ground fog forms along the ridges and vineyards of the Anderson Valley on September 9, 2012.

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Reporters and language geeks have long made pilgrimages to a hamlet in Northern California where rustics refer to men as “kimmies” and talking as “harpin’.” In Anderson Valley, an isolated corner of Mendocino County about two hours north of San Francisco, people speak in a hinterland dialect called Boontling. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle warned that Boontling, one of America’s few homegrown dialects, may be near extinction. By the Chronicle’s count, only 12 speakers remain. In this week’s Wednesday Words, we provide a brief history of the language and the people who speak it.

The name Boontling is a fusion of the name Boonville — a tiny Anderson Valley town — and the word lingo. The invention has been traced to the late 1800s, when the town was filled with Scotch-Irish ranchers and farmers. Locals started using slang words for the standard English equivalents, many anecdotally tied to characters in the town. One origin story, relayed by a TIME correspondent who made the pilgrimage in 1969, is that local townsmen created Boontling so the womenfolk wouldn’t know what they were harpin’ about.

TIME’s Timothy Tyler provides some examples of how local people inspired words: “It was more fun to call coffee zeese, because it recalled old Z.C., a cook who made coffee so strong you could float an egg on it,” he writes. “Or to call working ottin’, after an industrious logger named Otto.” Legend has it that the verb for taking a woman to bed became burlap because one day someone walked into the general store and found the clerk getting down with a young lady on a pile of sacks. (Ah, romance.)

Other words, such as kimmie for man, were taken from the Scotch-Irish dialects the settlers of Boonville brought with them. Others were euphemisms, such as “white spots” for “dead lambs.” In a language anthology published by MIT in 1988, Edna L. Sanders explains that Spanish, the local Pomo language and onomatopoeia also played a role. The term for riding on a train, for instance, is kelockity — just like the sound a train makes rolling down the tracks. All told, the Boontling vocabulary added up to something around 1,500 words, about 15% of which are reportedly “notch harpin’,” i.e. vulgar terms. Which seems low if Boontling indeed began as man-code.

Retired English Professor Charles C. Adams, author of the 1971 guidebook and dictionary, Boontling: An American Lingo, is the recognized authority on the dialect. He and other scholars conjecture that while everyone in Boonville may have once spoken Boontling, an influx of new arrivals to the area made the secret talk less popular in the mid-1900s — as did the spread of TV and radio, broadcast in standardized English. According to the Chronicle, the language is on red alert today because younger locals aren’t interested in carrying on the Boontling baton.

But there is some hope: MIT is developing a master’s program to help protect “threatened languages.” And even if Boontling pikes to the dusties (goes to the graveyard), we can comfort ourselves with the rich regional differences that remain in the good ole U.S. of A. After all, depending where you’re standing, pancakes could be flapjacks, hotcakes, griddle cakes, flitters, hoecakes, johnnycakes, crepe suzettes, cookies, dough gods, sinkers, friskins, puffers, spoon bread, stove lids, morning glories, pancooken, brown dollars or stacks. All of which a Boontling speaker would pour “bill nunn” on, because ol’ Bill Nunn sure did like his syrup.

Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.

23 comments
auronlu
auronlu

Shaka, when the walls fell.

Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra.

heyacrolect
heyacrolect

"one of America's few homegrown dialects..." Umm, right.

good thing I too speak condescension

leebliggett
leebliggett

Katy, I want to point out what I believe is an error in your enjoyable article (I had never heard of this community nor the dialect --- thank you.) You indicate that the community was founded by "Scotch-Irish".   I too am such a descendant  and I have over the years dabbled in the research of that heritage .  I discovered, not long ago, that apparently the term "Scotch-Irish" is actually an American bastardization  (probably occurring during the documentation process at Ellis Island by an official thinking about the adult refreshment awaiting him once he got off duty) and the term is actually "Scots-Irish".Say, if I am correct maybe that's a future topic for one of your articles..... Lee  

jamsweb
jamsweb

We were in Boonsville in the '80's. My first clue something was different was A cafe called "A Horn of Zeese" And the phone booth symbol said "Bucky Walter". We had breakfast at the cafe and one side of the menu was unreadable "3 dreeked Easters". Pure wonderful Twighlight Zone. I bought their delightful "bilingual" local cookbook and it is a treasure. People of Boonsville, don't let this unique heratiage slip away.

acr1127
acr1127

what makes it a dialect as opposed to unique words replacing standard words?  in my extended family (which is spread across the midwest and south atlantic states and has more than 12 people in it) we have replaced standard words with others.  does that mean we have a dialect?  this happens in any small town or community....adding or changing words because it is meaningful (or jokingly so) to the local populace.  how do i get my speak to be a recognized dialect.  and why do we have to preserve it other than recorded or written?  this would be an impossible and monumental task to preserve every single dialect in the US.

567ate
567ate

 Interesting intro to this dialect...strange though regionalisms are to outsiders, it's a shame to see the diversity of our culture dwindling. I hope the MIT program finds great interest!


(And a quick aside for the author, if we're in a conversation about specificities--"pancake" isn't a synonym for crepe suzette, spoon bread, fritter/flitter, cookie, or hoecake, no matter what subculture you're in. They're all distinct foodstuffs.)

sgrayban
sgrayban

The southern slang, as most people call, is actually a very old and forgotten language from the United Kingdom in the southern sections of the UK and South London. It's not spoken anymore  in the UK. Many American's don't even know this because its never been taught in any history or language class.

OnceTwiceThreeTimesAScotsman
OnceTwiceThreeTimesAScotsman

Scotch is a drink. A Scot is from Scotland.  For those of us actual Scots-Irish, we prefer not to be labeled as a brand of cellophane tape, thank you.  The only people who say Scotch-Irish are non-Scottish Americans.The rest of the world gets it right.

We thank you for your consideration.

From,

A descendant of the clans of Clift, Henderson, and MacGregor

FortRandallAK
FortRandallAK

The language  began as a game among the children who wanted to talk without being understood by the grown ups.  Over time more and more words were added and eventually the adults adopted it. Having grown up in "UKE" (Ukiah) in the 50's  and with family settling in the area in the late 1850's, not long after Anderson Valley was settled, the language is not unfamiliar to me. The first written record of this language appears to in 1942 by C.Douglas Chretien. During the First and Second World Wars servicemen from the area would write home to relatives and  parents about the war with out interference from the censors.  A chapter in the book "The Redwood Country"  by Lynwood Carranco is quite informative in regards to the language and how it  began.  The language predates the pot growers by over 100 yrs.

peppercorns
peppercorns

WHY?  Why would we want to preserve and dialect that butchers the English language?  It sounds as bad as "yawl" and "yous"!

Primer
Primer

As a kid I used to go to a Boy Scout camp in Navarro, 15 minutes from Boonville. The Anderson Valley has a long history of brewing very hoppy, strong beer and as one corner of "The Emerald Triangle" has a long history of growing high quality marijuana. Having their own language wasn't so much about keeping their wives from knowing what they were doing (convenient excuse) but to keep outsiders heading up from San Francisco from knowing what they were up to, both during prohibition and prior to Prop 215. At least that's how a friend of mine explained it to me. His family had been in the Anderson Valley for 4 generations, brewed IPA style beer and grew weed, so I am inclined to believe him. Plus even if kimmies don't talk at all, women always know what men are up to. :)


WhiteWookiee
WhiteWookiee

"One of America’s few homegrown dialects...?" That dog don't hunt. Interesting article, though.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Katy, quite informative (as your posts always are). I hope this dialect is preserved. We need to save our rich heritage as best as possible, including Boontling ...though I fear down the road you'll be sent to Southern California to write a similar article on the effort to save a dialect called Valspeak, as in the language of now fully grown Valley Girls, once hanging out with friends in cutting edge fashions and now wearing mom jeans and bracing themselves for grandkids.

johnwcowan
johnwcowan

@leebliggett "Scotch-Irish" was the traditional 18th- and 19th-century form.  Scottish people don't want to be called "Scotch" any more (whisky, foodstuffs, and tape, fine; people, no), so there has been pressure in recent years to switch to "Scots-Irish".  That doesn't make "Scotch-Irish" wrong in its historical context.

johnwcowan
johnwcowan

@acr1127 Quite right: it is not a dialect (which differs in grammar from Standard English) but a jargon (which differs only in vocabulary).  Try to get the MSM to make such distinctions correctly, however!  What makes Boontling interesting, though, is how large and pervasive the vocabulary is.

WhiskeySipper
WhiskeySipper

 @OnceTwiceThreeTimesAScotsman  You are incorrect, sir. Please do not presume to speak for other Scotch-Irish Americans, most of whom know better. The term Scotch-Irish was the one used by the original group of immigrants from Ulster in the United States to distinguish themselves from the other Irish immigrants that arrived later.   "Scots-Irish" is a modern invention with little basis in historical use.

This has been discussed and settled authoritatively with overwhelming citation evidence in the article and discussion page for the Scotch-Irish entry on Wikipedia. Please go there and  educate yourself. Thank you.

JohnRead
JohnRead

@peppercorns Y'all fills a defect in the English language. In standard English, there is no second person plural pronoun, as there is in most European languages. Y'all fills the bill jes' right.

ChoirLoft
ChoirLoft

@peppercorns If y'all are going to lecture others on the English language it would be a good idea if you knew it yourself.   Go back to your shopping flyers for mall specials, honey.  You're out of your league.

Unreconstructed
Unreconstructed

@peppercorns 

Pardon me, ma'am, but it's "y'all," not "yawl."  "Y'all" is a contraction of "you all," much as "don't" is a contraction of "do not," and I'm sure you've been guilty of committing that linguistic sin without giving it a thought.  Dialects and accents are not butchery.  They are part of the history of any given language and the people who speak it.  Preserving them is akin to preserving those people themselves.  And if not for dialects you would be speaking the Queen's English right now instead of American English.

Incidentally, a "yawl" is a type of sailing vessel.  Look it up.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

@peppercorns "... we want to preserve "and" dialect.." and you're talking about butchering? No, the space key isn't even close to the "d" so don't give me any excuses about a "typo".