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HandWiki. Yan Tan Tethera. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/35337 (accessed on 17 June 2024).
HandWiki. Yan Tan Tethera. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/35337. Accessed June 17, 2024.
HandWiki. "Yan Tan Tethera" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/35337 (accessed June 17, 2024).
HandWiki. (2022, November 20). Yan Tan Tethera. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/35337
HandWiki. "Yan Tan Tethera." Encyclopedia. Web. 20 November, 2022.
Yan Tan Tethera
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Yan Tan Tethera is a sheep-counting rhyme/system traditionally used by shepherds in Northern England and earlier in some other parts of Britain. Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the fells 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, some 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 /ɑː/ was broken into /ie/, /ia/ and so on. This explains the shift to yan and ane from the Old English ān, which is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz. 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 hām.

sheep-counting shepherds rhyme/system

1. Importance of Keeping Count

In order to keep accurate records (e.g. of birth and death) and to be alert to instances of 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 important 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, tagging, foot-trimming, mulesing, etc., although sheep are far less likely to stray while being moved in a group than when grazing at large on open ground.

2. Origin and Usage

Sheep-counting systems ultimately derive from Brythonic Celtic languages, such as Cumbric; Tim Gay writes: “[Sheep-counting systems from all over the British Isles] all compared very closely to 18th-century Cornish and modern Welsh".[1] 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 the words for 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).

Their use is also attested in a knitting song from Yorkshire.[2] Similar modern references have since been made in both products produced and sold within Northern England, such as prints,[3] beers,[4] and yarns,[5] as well as artistic works simply referencing the region, such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 1986 opera Yan Tan Tethera.

3. Systems by Region

3.1. Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, County Durham and Lancashire

Number Bowland Rathmell Nidderdale Swaledale Wharfedale Teesdale
1 Yain Aen Yain Yan Yan Yan
2 Tain Taen Tain Tan Tan Tean
3 Eddera Tethera Eddero Tether Tether Tether
4 Peddera Fethera Peddero Mether   Mether
5 Pit Phubs Pitts Pip   Pip
6 Tayter Aayther Tayter Azer   Lezar
7 Layter Layather Layter Sezar   Azar
8 Overa Quoather Overo Akker   Catrah
9 Covera Quaather Covero Conter   Borna
10 Dix Dugs Dix Dick   Dick
11 Yain-a-dix Aena dugs Yaindix Yanadick   Yan-a-dick
12 Tain-a-dix Taena dugs Taindix Tanadick   Tean-a-dick
13 Eddera-a-dix Tethera dugs Edderodix Tetheradick   Tether-dick
14 Peddera-a-dix Fethera dugs Pedderodix Metheradick   Mether-dick
15 Bumfit Buon Bumfit Bumfit   Bumfit
16 Yain-a-bumfit Aena buon Yain-o-Bumfit Yanabum   Yan-a-bum
17 Tain-a-bumfit Taena buon Tain-o-Bumfit Tanabum   Tean-a-bum
18 Eddera-bumfit Tethera buon Eddero-Bumfit Tetherabum   Tethera-bum
19 Peddera-a-bumfit Fethera buon Peddero-Bumfit Metherabum   Methera-bum
20 Jiggit Gun a gun Jiggit Jigget   Jiggit
Number Derbyshire Weardale Tong Kirkby Lonsdale Wensleydale Derbyshire Dales Lincolnshire
1 Yain Yan Yan Yaan Yain Yan Yan
2 Tain Teyan Tan Tyaan Tain Tan Tan
3 Eddero Tethera Tether Taed'ere Eddero Tethera Tethera
4 Pederro Methera Mether Mead'ere Peddero Methera Pethera
5 Pitts Tic Pick Mimp Pitts Pip Pimp
6 Tayter Yan-a-tic Sesan Haites Tayter Sethera Sethera
7 Later Teyan-a-tic Asel Saites Later Lethera Lethera
8 Overro Tethera-tic Catel Haoves Overro Hovera Hovera
9 Coverro Methera-tic Oiner Daoves Coverro Dovera Covera
10 Dix Bub Dick Dik Disc Dick Dik
11 Yain-dix Yan-a-bub Yanadick Yaan'edik Yain disc   Yan-a-dik
12 Tain-dix Teyan-a-bub Tanadick Tyaan'edik Tain disc   Tan-a-dik
13 Eddero-dix Tethera-bub Tetheradick Tead'eredik Ederro disc   Tethera-dik
14 Peddero-dix Methera-bub Metheradick Mead'eredik Peddero disc   Pethera-dik
15 Bumfitt Tic-a-bub Bumfit Boon, buom, buum Bumfitt   Bumfit
16 Yain-o-bumfitt Yan-tic-a-bub Yanabum Yaan'eboon Bumfitt yain   Yan-a-bumfit
17 Tain-o-bumfitt Teyan-tic-a-bub Tanabum Tyaan'eboon Bumfitt tain   Tan-a-bumfit
18 Eddero-o-bumfitt Tethea-tic-a-bub Tetherabum Tead'ereboon Bumfitt ederro   Tethera-bumfit
19 Peddero-o-bumfitt Methera-tic-a-bub Metherabum Mead'ereboon Bumfitt peddero   Pethera-bumfit
20 Jiggit Gigget Jigget Buom'fit, buum'fit Jiggit   Figgot
Number Southwest England (Variations) West Country Dorset
1 Yahn Hant
2 Tayn Tant
3 Tether Tothery
4 Mether Forthery
5 Mumph Fant
6 Hither Sahny
7 Lither Dahny
8 Auver Downy
9 Dauver Dominy
10 Dic Dik
11 Yahndic Haindik
12 Tayndic Taindik
13 Tetherdic Totherydik
14 Metherdic Fotherydik
15 Mumphit Jiggen
16 Yahna Mumphit Hain Jiggen
17 Tayna Mumphit Tain Jiggen
18 Tethera Mumphit Tother Jiggen
19 Methera Mumphit Fother Jiggen
20 Jigif Full Score

3.2. Cumberland, and Westmorland

Number Coniston Borrowdale Eskdale Westmorland
1 Yan Yan Yaena Yan
2 Taen Tyan Taena Tahn
3 Tedderte Tethera Teddera Teddera
4 Medderte Methera Meddera Meddera
5 Pimp Pimp Pimp Pimp
6 Haata Sethera Seckera Settera
7 Slaata Lethera Leckera Lettera
8 Lowra Hovera Hofa Hovera
9 Dowra Dovera Lofa Dovera
10 Dick Dick Dec Dick
11 Yan-a-Dick Yan-a-Dick   Yan Dick
12 Taen-a-Dick Tyan-a-Dick   Tahn Dick
13 Tedder-a-Dick Tethera-Dick   Teddera Dick
14 Medder-a-Dick Methera-Dick   Meddera Dick
15 Mimph Bumfit   Bumfit
16 Yan-a-Mimph Yan-a-bumfit   Yan-a-Bumfit
17 Taen-a-Mimph Tyan-a-bumfit   Tahn-a Bumfit
18 Tedder-a-Mimph Tethera Bumfit   Teddera-Bumfit
19 Medder-a-Mimph Methera Bumfit   Meddera-Bumfit
20 Gigget Giggot   Jiggot

3.3. Wilts, Scots, Lakes, Dales and Welsh

Number 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 Yanabumfit 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

Numerals in Brythonic Celtic languages

Number Ancient British Old Welsh Welsh Cornish (Kemmyn) Breton
1 *oinos (m + n), *oinā (f) un un unn; onan unan
2 *dwāu (m), *dwī (f) dou, (?) dau, dwy dew, diw daou, div
3 *trīs (m), *tisres (f) tri, (?) tri, tair tri, teyr tri, teir
4 *petwares (m), *petesres (f) petuar, (?) pedwar, pedair peswar, peder pevar, peder
5 *pempe pimp pump pymp pemp
6 *swexs chwech chwech hwegh c'hwec'h
7 *sextan seith saith seyth seizh
8 *oxtū wyth wyth eth eizh
9 *nawan nau naw naw nav
10 *dekan dec deg deg dek
11 *oinodekan   un ar ddeg unnek unnek
12 *dwāudekan   deuddeg dewdhek daouzek
13 *trīdekan   tri ar ddeg, tair ar ddeg trydhek trizek
14 *petwardekan   pedwar ar ddeg, pedair ar ddeg peswardhek pevarzek
15 *pempedekan   pymtheg pymthek pemzek
16 *swexsdekan   un ar bymtheg hwetek c'hwezek
17 *sextandekan   dau ar bymtheg, dwy ar bymtheg seytek seitek
18 *oxtūdekan   deunaw etek triwec'h
19 *nawadekam   pedwar ar bymtheg, pedair ar bymtheg nownsek naontek
20 *wikantī   ugain ugens ugent

References

  1. Gay, Tim (July 1999). "Rural dialects and surviving Britons". British Archaeology (46): 18. https://reader.exacteditions.com/magazines/1291/search?q=yan. 
  2. R. S. T. (1863). "Knitting Song". Notes and Queries. 3rd Series 4: 205. https://books.google.com/books?id=40wAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA205. 
  3. Prints, St Jude's. "Yan tan Tethera" (in en). https://www.stjudesprints.co.uk/products/yan-tan-tethera. 
  4. "New Beer - Yan Tan Tethera" (in en-GB). 2019-03-31. https://www.greatnewsomebrewery.co.uk/new-beer-yan-tan-tethera/. 
  5. "Yan tan tethera" (in en-GB). https://www.etsy.com/uk/market/yan_tan_tethera. 
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