SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Boonville in Northern California is known for its wineries and being a tight-knit community. And it has its own language, Boontling, created long ago as a way to gossip covertly, still alive today, but Stina Sieg reports.
STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Bahl means good. Nonch means bad. And horn of zeese - that's Boontling for a cup of coffee. It sounds kind of hard to believe, until you visit the senior center in this community of about 1,000 people nestled in a valley a few hours north of San Francisco.
WES SMOOT: You been boshin'?
DAVID KNIGHT: Just a slib.
SMOOT: Slib. You get a granny hatchet?
KNIGHT: Nope, mostly just gormin' and horse shoes.
SIEG: That's Wes Smoot asking David Knight if he's been deer hunting. Yes, Knight says, but only a little, and he hasn't bagged one yet. Instead, he's been eating barbecue and playing horseshoes.
Boontling dates back to the late 1800s, but it was still spoken widely on Boonville streets and even taught in its schools much more recently. It was so ingrained in local culture that when Smoot's great-uncle joined the military...
SMOOT: He had one terrible time understanding English because all he knew was Boontling.
SIEG: Smoot, on the other hand, enjoys being bilingual here.
SMOOT: Strangers come in on the weekends, you know, metropolitan people. And they sit down and we sit there and talk about them, the things that'd normally get your face slapped pretty bad. And they just grinning at you and they have no idea what we was talking about, you know? And that to me is a lot of fun, you know?
FAL ALLEN: Ya, I by harp a wee slib of the ling, which means yes, I speak a little bit of Boontling.
SIEG: That's one of Boontling's newer speakers, Fal Allen. He is not fluent, but he's still one of the unofficial keepers of the lingo's history. He says Boonville's always been kind of removed from the outside world - by treacherous roads, and by choice.
ALLEN: You know, it was very hard to get in and out of this valley. And so they were very isolated and they were not excited about having outsiders come in. And so the secret language for the people of the valley seemed to be - you know, make perfect sense.
SIEG: And no sense to outsiders, which was the point of this combination of nicknames, jargon and the odd foreign term. Allen says Boontling eventually reached a vocabulary of 1,600 words.
ALLEN: Who doesn't love a secret language? I mean, come on.
SIEG: Especially one that's still evolving, even as it dances on the edge of extinction. It's estimated that less than 100 people still speak it, and far fewer are fluent. Back at the senior center, Smoot describes his contribution to Boontling, a word that means old-timer. It's downstreamer - in honor of local dog salmon.
SMOOT: He's going back downstream trying to get to the ocean, but he dies before he gets to the ocean. So when you get up in our age, well, we're almost downstreamers. (Laughter). We're headed for the ocean, but I doubt if we're going to make it.
SIEG: But Boontling just might make it if enough of its younger enthusiasts keep it up. They've created a Boontling study group, it meets once a month. For NPR News I'm Stina Sieg in Boont - that's Boonville, California.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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