Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

The system seems to have been scattered around Britain, and its distribution and antiquity mean there’s a lot of variation in the forms it takes. The numbers’ names come from a Brythonic Gaelic language, and they vary with dialect, geography, and other factors.

Wikipedia has what looks like a reasonably well-sourced article with many examples of the system; here are a few, alongside Welsh for comparison:

 No.  Wilts  Scots  Lakes  Dales  Welsh
 1  Ain  Yan  Auna  Yain  Un
 2  Tain  Tyan  Peina  Tain  Dau
 3  Tethera  Tethera  Para  Edderoa  Tri
 4  Methera  Methera  Peddera  Peddero  Pedwar
 5  Mimp  Pimp  Pimp  Pitts  Pump
 6  Ayta  Sethera  Ithy  Tayter  Chwech
 7  Slayta  Lethera  Mithy  Leter  Saith
 8  Laura  Hovera  Owera  Overro  Wyth
 9  Dora  Dovera  Lowera  Coverro  Naw
 10  Dik  Dik  Dig  Dix  Deg
 11  Ain-a-dik  Yanadik  Ain-a-dig  Yain-dix  Un ar ddeg
 12  Tain-a-dik  Tyanadik  Pein-a-dig  Tain-dix  Deuddeg
 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
 15  Mit  Bumfitt  Bunfit  Bumfitt  Pymtheg
 16  Ain-a-mit  Yanabumfitt  Aina-a-bumfit  Yain-o-bumfitt  Un ar bymtheg
 17  Tain-a-mit  Tyanabumfitt  Pein-a-bumfit  Tain-o-bumfitt  Dau ar bymtheg
 18  Tethera-mit  Tetherabumfitt  Par-a-bunfit  Eddero-bumfitt  Deunaw
 19  Gethera-mit  Metherabumfitt  Pedder-a-bumfit  Peddero-bumfitt  Pedwar ar bymtheg
 20  Ghet  Giggot  Giggy  Jiggit  Ugain

The Lakeland Dialect Society has a useful article written by Ted Relph about the yan tan tethera system that includes a nice summary of how it works:

There would seem to be a clear connection with counting on the fingers, particularly after getting to 10, as the best known local examples then go 1 and 10, 2 and 10, etc up to 15, then 1 and 15, 2 and 15, etc up to 20. The count invariably ended at 20. This was a ‘score’ and a scratch was then put in a stick or stone, and the count recommenced. In this way things were counted in scores. It is said that the shepherds, on reaching 20, would transfer a pebble or marble from one pocket to another, so as to keep a tally of the number of scores.

Several of the numbers are strongly suggestive of Welsh or Cornish, but their origins are complex, with the rhymes that were used as a mnemonic aid obscuring the derivation in some cases. A letter written by the great philologist Walter Skeat in 1907, and published in the West Sussex Gazette, gives some indication of the mixed etymology:

The original Celtic numerals were frequently forgotten, and their places supplied by words that were more or less founded on rhyme. And sometimes the Celtic words were supplemented by English ones. Owing to the corrupt forms that thus resulted, many of the formulae are of slight philological interest or value. That the original counting was in Celtic, chiefly appears from some forms that still remain. Thus the Welsh pump, five, explains the Eskdale pimp, and the Knaresborough pip, and others. The Welsh deg, ten, explains the forms dix, dec, dick, dik. But yan (whence yain, yaena, yah) is only a dialectal form of the English one. And tain, taena, tean are merely altered forms of two, whilst the rest of the word is made to rhyme: e.g. yain, tain, yaena, taena ; yan, tean ; yah, tiah ; and so on. The Welsh pedwar, four, has become first peddero (also pethera and pether) and afterwards meddera, methera, mether.

Yan tan tethera has crept into all sorts of cultural corners, though not so much in Ireland; Finnegans Wake is a notable exception, the sequence a natural fit with that book’s boundless poetic promiscuity. It also shows up in album titles, art workshouse signs and the like.

Finally, here’s a charming clip of the English poet, singer and storyteller Jake Thackray introducing and performing yan tan tethera in an autobiographical vein (hat-tip to @Pani_Bufetowa). See if you don’t end up humming the melody for the rest of the day.

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25 Responses to Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

  1. richardsmyth says:

    Lovely post, Stan, and a terrific clip – but it’s Jake, not Jack, Thackray.

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good morning, (in the USA), Stan! Good afternoon to you in Ireland.
    Thanks for an interesting post. For some reason, upon reading your chart comparing numbers in different dialects (the right term in this context?), I thought of biblical Hebrew, which I don’t know but with which I have a little familiarity due to my daily and considerable reading of the Bible, KJV 1611 version. However, my quick Google search did not yield the answer to my inquiry. You appear to be a linguist. My one graduate level course in linguistics permits me to understand some of what you write about the technical nature (etymology) of language. The short video you embedded is both entertaining and informative. Thanks! And, I wish you and your family a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

  3. languagehat says:

    There are some interesting comments in this old LH thread.

  4. Stan says:

    Vinetta: Good morning and good afternoon to you further west (and good evening, since it’s turning dusky here already). I wouldn’t call them dialects, since each version of the system is a mixture of quite disparate dialects and languages. I’d call them versions or variations of an old counting system (that’s based chiefly on Celtic dialects). For the record, I’m not a linguist, though I have an abiding interest in the area; my educational background is in the life sciences. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family too.

    Jenni: Very! Thanks for stopping by.

    LH: Ah yes. I should have searched your site for this – if any language blog was likely to’ve covered it, it’s yours. Of particular interest, and not mentioned in my post, are the folk song ‘The Lincolnshire Shepherd‘, this collection of regional variations, and these beautiful wood engravings.

  5. […] read this interesting post on the origins of the various, related counting systems used by shepherds in northern England, […]

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan, thanks for this intriguing cross-cultural, (yet commonly rooted in Celtic dialect), comparison of related sheep counting methods in various British sheep rearing locales.

    Jake Thackery ‘s wonderful musings on counting sheep, even connecting w/ his ancestral roots in his brief account of the ill-fated shepherdess, Molly Metcalfe, was thoroughly engaging.

    Almost immediately, I was struck by Thackery’s sonorous, fairly monotone, deep basso-baritone voice, as well as his heavy-lidded, eyes; as if he were about to drift off to beddy-byes. Which got me pondering as to the possible efficacy of using this lyrical Gaelic sheep count… Yan. tan, tethera…etc. as a viable method of helping one doze off to slumberland.

    Counting imaginary sheep was kind of an old-school option for insomniacs to fall asleep, back in the day; but w/ the array of readily available over-the-counter oral sleep aids such as melatonin, Lunestra*, Sominex, and the like, the sheep counting modality seems to have gone the way of the Dodo.

    Hmm… counting Dodos? Now there’s a concept.

    *Might need a prescription for that Lunestra.

  7. Claude says:

    Fascinating article.Love the video!

  8. Stan says:

    Alex: I found Thackray’s (note spelling) performance engaging too – even haunting, as a Twitter friend put it. It would be nice to think that people do actually count sheep to invite sleep.

    Claude: Thank you! The video is one I’ve returned to quite a few times. A perfect match of story, song, and rich history.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan, thanks for Jake’s name clarification in your last reply. For me, (and I’m sure for scores of other readers), his surname immediately evoked the name of the much lauded Victorian era satirist, William Makepeace Thackeray… sans the “e”, of course.

    So in my earlier offering of my ‘two-cents-worth’, I wanted to be sure to spell this raconteur’s name in the attached video, correctly. And sure enough, I blew it on two counts w/ my erroneous “Thackery”– spelling both the late Vanity Fair parodist, and this basso-profundo gent, Jake’s last names, incorrectly. Oh well.

    I can appreciate your Twitter friend’s “haunting” take on Mr. Thackray’s subtly riveting performance. That bouncy, rhyming sheep-count does kind of linger in one’s noggin for a spell.

    P.S.:—Happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrants out there. We truly all have much to be thankful for… including our blogmeister Stan, who allows us to openly commune, and share in our mutual love of words, word usage, word origins, word play, and the infinite wonders of our ever-evolving English tongue.

    Stan, thanks for being there (and here… Ha!), and generously giving of yourself, each and every day.

  10. Sean J. says:

    Immense joy to read, watch, listen and learn. Thanks a lot, Stan.

  11. […] 38. Yan Tan Tethera Pethera Pimp – An Old System For Counting Sheep […]

  12. Stan says:

    Alex, Vinetta, thanks very much, and many happy returns.

    Sean, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It would be nice to think that someone somewhere is still using the system for practical purposes out in the fields.

    Since publishing the post Thackray’s song has stayed with me, so I was happy to find this lovely rendition of it by folk singer Maz O’Connor:

  13. Nurn says:

    Stan, quite apart from the very interesting post, thanks for introducing me to Jake Thackray, and Maz O’Connor. That’s a very evocative song.

  14. wisewebwoman says:

    I can’t get over “bumfitt” and will use it every chance I get. To hell with 15.

    XO
    WWW

  15. Thanks for sharing, Stan. It’s amazing to me that traces of Celtic have survived in English for so long.

  16. Stan says:

    WWW: To hell with 15. Ha ha. I’d love if it caught on.

    Jonathon: Testament to the system’s utility and catchiness, maybe. It deserves to survive in some shape or form.

  17. […] classified; I was particularly struck by imberb “beardless”), obscure counting words like yan, tan, tethera, methera, pip, and miscellaneous […]

  18. […] of old language will like this one.  Old numbering systems. There are some lovely words in there, but it isn’t hard to see how the modern equivalents […]

  19. […] from a wide variety of sources. The following is a bit of Theran culture that developed from a blog post by linguist Stan Carey. (He’s Irish, so that’s where I made my […]

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