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. 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.
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:
|11||Ain-a-dik||Yanadik||Ain-a-dig||Yain-dix||Un ar ddeg|
|Tri ar ddeg|
|Pedwar ar ddeg|
|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|
|19||Gethera-mit||Metherabumfitt||Pedder-a-bumfit||Peddero-bumfitt||Pedwar ar bymtheg|
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 works, house 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.
And two further fine renditions, by folk singer Maz O’Connor:
and vocal trio Yan Tan Tether: