- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) an old name for the number 13 used among sheep farmers and herders
One of the year’s most popular tweets that we never quite got round to explaining was this fabulous list of traditional English sheep-counting numbers:
Although we name-checked “shepherds in the Lake District” in that original tweet (as this list comes from Bryham Kirkby’s superb 1898 dictionary of Lakeland Words), there are countless regional variations of this yan-tan-tethera system in use across rural England for everything from counting knitting stitches to children’s games. But they’re all so vastly different from our standard one-two-three system—so where on earth did they come from?
Well, as mentioned in the video, counting systems like these have their roots not in good old Anglo-Saxon, but in the ancient Celtic languages that were spoken across much of the British Isles (and much of the northwestern fringes of Europe, for that matter) long before the Angles and the Saxons even arrived in England. All these Celtic languages had one common ancestor—known linguistically as Proto-Celtic, or “Common” Celtic—but by the sixth century or thereabouts, Europe’s Celtic speakers had become so dispersed that this ancient ancestor had splintered up, and in its place numerous localized forms of Celtic had began to develop. Many of these “daughter” languages have sadly long since disappeared, but a handful—Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Manx and Cornish to name a few—have managed to survive.
In the northwest of England, where the Lakeland terms listed above originate, the local form of this ancient Celtic language tree was called Cumbric—but alas, that’s not to say that if you were to count to 10 in the Lakeland system you’d be counting to 10 in perfect ancient Cumbric. After all, it disappeared from the language map around roughly eight centuries ago; life may be good in the Lakes, but living to your 800th birthday is a bit of a stretch even there.
Instead, yan-tan-tethera and all the regional variations of it that have endured probably combine elements from their original Celtic roots with influence from surviving Celtic languages, with bits of modern English thrown in for good measure. Yan and tan, for instance, are probably just dialect variations of the English “one” and “two”, with the ending of tan altered so that they rhyme. The same probably occurred in the rhyming pairs tethera (3) and methera (4), sethera (6) and lethera (7), and hovera (8) and povera (9)—but the similarity of methera to its modern Welsh equivalent pedwar, and the similarity between hovera and the Manx word for “eight”, hoght (which rhymes with loch), seems to suggest that there’s at least some of the original Celtic left in there somewhere. Elsewhere, pimp (5), dick (10) and bumfit (15) are all noticeably similar to the modern Welsh pump, deg and pymtheg, while the regular X-a-Y pattern used to form the teens is even more similar to Welsh.
So all in all, these yan-tan-tethera counting systems represent something of an etymological mixed bag—albeit one with its origins rooted in ancient linguistic history.