Yan tan tethera
||This article needs additional citations for verification. (November 2009)|
Yan Tan Tethera is a sheep counting rhyme/system traditionally used by shepherds in Northern England and earlier in other parts of England and the British Isles. Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the dales of the Lake District. The Yan Tan Tethera system was also used for counting stitches in knitting. The words derive from a Brythonic Celtic language.
Though most of these number systems fell out of use by 1910, many are still in use. The word yan or yen for 'one' in some northern English dialects generally represents a regular development in Northern English in which the Old English long vowel /á/ was broken into /ie/, /ia/ and so on. Another example of this development is the Northern English word for "home", hame, which has forms such as hyem, yem and yam all deriving from the Old English hám.
Importance of keeping count
In order to keep accurate records (e.g. of birth and death) and prevent animals from straying, shepherds must perform frequent head-counts of their flocks. Dating back at least to the medieval period, and continuing to the present in some areas like Slaidburn, farms were granted fell rights, allowing them access to common grazing land. To prevent overgrazing, it was vitally necessary for each farm to keep accurate, updated head-counts.
Though fell rights are largely obsolete in modern agriculture except in upland areas, farms are often subsidised and taxed according to the quantity of their sheep. For this reason, accurate counts are still necessary, and must be performed frequently.
Generally, a count is the first action performed in the morning and the last action performed at night. A count is made after moving the sheep from one pasture to another, and after any operation involving the sheep, such as shearing, foot-trimming, mulesing, etc.
Origin and usage
Sheep-counting systems ultimately derive from Brythonic Celtic languages, such as Cumbric, although Tim Gay writes: “They [sheep-counting systems from all over the British Isles] all compared very closely to 18th century Cornish and modern Welsh”. It is impossible, given the corrupted form in which they have survived, to be sure of their exact origin. The counting systems have changed considerably over time. A particularly common tendency is for certain pairs of adjacent numbers to come to resemble each other by rhyme (notably 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 6 and 7, or 8 and 9). Still, multiples of five tend to be fairly conservative; compare bumfit with Welsh pymtheg, in contrast with standard English fifteen.
Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be vigesimal (based on the number twenty), but they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty; though this is not a limitation of either modernised decimal Celtic counting systems or the older ones. To count a large number of sheep, a shepherd would repeatedly count to twenty, placing a mark on the ground, or move his hand to another mark on his crook, or drop a pebble into his pocket to represent each score (e.g. 5 score sheep = 100 sheep).
It is also worth noting the number theory behind the scheme. Although decimal up to 10, in most dialects the scheme then changes to counting in (sub-)base 5. It is possible to carry out limited arithmetic in base 5 on numbers up to 30 (decimal) using your fingers as a rudimentary abacus. It is pure speculation, but there may be a connection between the two facts, and the shepherds of England may have carried out limited accounting on their fingers.
In particular, the names of the numbers fit a pattern in which the index finger and thumb[clarification needed] each represent 0 when retracted, 1 when bent, and 2 when straight, while the other three fingers each represent 5 when extended. The rhyming transitions occur with the straightening of a finger, and the pattern repeats at intervals of 5. Thus, with two hands, a person can count up to 399. In the similar but simpler system, discernible in Roman numerals, in which the thumb is 5 and the other fingers 1 each, a person can only count up to 99 on two hands. The Yan Tan Tethera system was thus advantageous until writing made the limitation of two hands less important.
Another reason for the use of base five is suggested by the design of the shepherds crook which has grooves, nobbles, nicks or other impressions on it which enable the shepherd to note the number of fives counted on the other hand. Using base five counting in this way allows the shepherd to total as many sheep as the markings on the crook will allow, each mark representing five sheep.
Their use is also attested in a knitting song from Yorkshire.
Systems by region
Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, County Durham and Lancashire
|20||Jiggit||Gun a gun||Jiggit||Jigget||Jiggit|
|Number||Derbyshire||Weardale||Tong||Kirkby Lonsdale||Wensleydale||Derbyshire Dales||Lincolnshire|
|15||Bumfitt||Tic-a-bub||Bumfit||Boon, buom, buum||Bumfitt||Bumfit|
|Number||Southern England (Variations)||West Country Dorset/Wilts|
|16||Yahna Mumphit||Hain Jiggen|
|17||Tayna Mumphit||Tain Jiggen|
|18||Tethera Mumphit||Tother Jiggen|
|19||Methera Mumphit||Fother Jiggen|
[Essex or East Anglia]
Cumbria, Cumberland, and Westmorland
|13||Tedder-a-Dick||Tethera - Dick||Teddera Dick|
|14||Medder-a-Dick||Methera - Dick||Meddera Dick|
Wilts, Scots, Lakes, Dales and Welsh
|11||Ain-a-dik||Yanadik||Ain-a-dig||Yain-dix||Un ar ddeg|
|13||Tethera-a-dik||Tetheradik||Para-a-dig||Eddero-dix||Tri ar ddeg|
|14||Methera-a-dik||Metheradik||Peddaer-a-dig||Pedderp-dix||Pedwar ar ddeg|
|16||Ain-a-mit||Yanabumfit||Aina-a-bumfit||Yain-o-bumfitt||Un ar bymtheg|
|17||Tain-a-mit||Tyanabumfitt||Pein-a-bumfit||Tain-o-bumfitt||Dau ar bymtheg|
|19||Gethera-mit||Metherabumfitt||Pedder-a-bumfit||Peddero-bumfitt||Pedwar ar bymtheg|
Numerals in Brythonic Celtic Languages
|Number||Ancient British||Old Welsh||Welsh||Cornish (Kemmyn)||Breton|
|1||*oinos (m), *oinā (f), *oinom (n)||un||un||unn; onan||unan|
|2||*dewou (m), *dewī (f)||dou, (?)||dau, dwy||dew, diw||daou, div|
|3||*trīs (m), *tiserīs (f)||tri, (?)||tri, tair||tri, teyr||tri, teir|
|4||*petwār (m), *petiserīs (f)||petuar, (?)||pedwar, pedair||peswar, peder||pevar, peder|
|11||*oindekam||un ar ddeg||unnek||unnek|
|13||*trīdekam||tri ar ddeg, tair ar ddeg||trydhek||trizek|
|14||*petwārdekam||pedwar ar ddeg, pedair ar ddeg||peswardhek||pevarzek|
|16||*swedekam||un ar bymtheg||hwetek||c'hwezek|
|17||*sextandekam||dau ar bymtheg, dwy ar bymtheg||seytek||seitek|
|19||*nawandekam||pedwar ar bymtheg, pedair ar bymtheg||nownsek||naontek|
In popular culture
The English composer Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) composed a chamber opera entitled Yan Tan Tethera (subtitled "a mechanical pastoral") in 1984 with a libretto by the poet Tony Harrison. It is based on a folk tale about two shepherds, and includes sheep being counted using 'Yan Tan Tethera' and the rival 'One Two Three' system.
In the Broadway musical The Music Man, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, the mayor's wife, uses a different version of the Yan Tan Tethera ("Een Teen Tuther Feather Pip!") in the "Indian Tongue" of her "spectacle" with the schoolchildren.
English chansonnier Jake Thackray wrote, performed and recorded a song about a shepherdess, entitled Old Molly Metcalfe, with the refrain Yan Tean Tether Mether Pip she counted. In the introduction to the song he describes how Swaledale sheep farmers "count their sheep in a curious fashion," and gives the entire sequence from 1 to 20.
In The Mating of Lydia, by Mrs Humphrey Ward, the following counting rhyme is quoted as being from the northern dales: "Yan—tyan—tethera—methera—pimp—sethera—lethera—hovera—dovera—dick—Yan-a-dick—tyan-a-dick—tethera-a-dick—methera-a-dick—bumfit—Yan-a-bumfit—tyan-a-bumfit—tethera-a-bumfit—methera-a-bumfit—giggot"
In Terry Pratchett's novel The Wee Free Men the heroine, Tiffany Aching, is called "little jiggit" by her Grandmother, a female shepherd, as Tiffany was her twentieth grandchild; also, the titular race of sheep-stealing pictsies, use the "yan-tan-teth'ra" sequence for counting off. The "yan tan teth'ra" system of counting is said to be used for "important things," such as sheep and grandchildren. (They also use it for groups counting in unison before lifting heavy objects, but usually those are sheep or kine they're stealing.)
In a novel by Bernard Cornwell, Azincourt, the central character is an English archer, preparing for battle in 1415. He "turned to count his men. He did it in the old way of the country, like a shepherd counting his flock, just as his father had taught him. Yain, tain, eddero, he counted and got to bumfit, which was fifteen, and looked for the extra man and saw two. Tain-o-bumfit?"
Joan Aiken's children's book The Cuckoo Tree features ten "Gentlemen" named Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pip, Sethera, Wineberry, Wagtail, Tarrydiddle and Den.
The children's album Fiddle Up a Tune by Eric Nagler features a song "Yan Tan Tethera," whose eponymous phrase begins an incantation used to calm leprechauns: "Yan tan tethera, one two three: All you little ones, let us be. Hevapin sethera, four five six: Lay down your magic fiddlesticks."
In the second series of Catweazle, the eponymous character counts using a form of Yan Tan; this is part of the writer Carpenter's detailed research into historical accuracy for his 1066 wizard character.
- Kate Distin (2010). Cultural Evolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-521-18971-2.
- Dick Leith: A Social History of English, 1997, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-09797-5, ISBN 978-0-415-09797-0, p.45
- Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p.191
- Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p.79
- Notes and Queries, 3rd Series, Vol. 4, p. 205 (1863)
- More about usage
- Tim Gay - Rural dialects and surviving Britons
- Cornish numerals, including mp3s for pronunciations
- Breton numerals
- Carol Justus' use of this numbering system to explain pre-decimal counting systems
- The Sheep Counting Score - By Walter Skeat, 1910
- Modern Welsh decimal system and older vigesimal system in full