Counting in Swaledale

by Harry on March 2, 2004

The late great Jake Thackray has a song, Old Molly Metcalf, in which he describes a local quirky way of counting sheep in Swaledale (Yorkshire). The shepherds apparently count(ed) as follows:

Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip, Azar, Sazar, Akka, Cotta, Dik
Yanadik, Channadik, Thetheradik, Metheradik, Bumfit, Yanabum, Chanabum, Thetherabum, Metherabum, Jiggit.

I first heard the song long ago, and at that time still remembered a colloquial counting system from my Welsh childhood, but I have now completely forgotten it (it wasn’t Welsh—it wasn’t one of those parts of Wales). There must be others. Does anyone know what I’m thinking of? And can anyone give the origins of the Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip system? (Google gives me one hit—the page with the lyrics of Old Molly Metcalf).

{ 16 comments }

1

phil jones 03.02.04 at 2:34 am

I seem to remember my father singing a Welsh counting song along those lines, but never understood the words, sounded like

Gava [something]
Gava vindue, vindue, vindue …

Also, Harrison Birtwhistle’s best (in my opinion) opera is “Yan Tan Tethera” based on the rivalry between good and evil shephards using their counting systems in magical ways.

2

gthistle 03.02.04 at 3:01 am

You may find searching the sci.lang archives more useful than straight Google. I’ve long since stopped browsing that newsgroup, but here is one piece of a relevant thread from a few years back.

3

LizardBreath 03.02.04 at 3:36 am

I have no idea if it’s online anywhere, but there’s an essay by E.B. White in which he mentions a similar set of sheep-counting numerals, possibly the same one.

4

bad Jim 03.02.04 at 4:41 am

Odd that the numbers above bumfit (15) are expressed incrementally: 16 = yanabum = yan + bum, and so on. One might wonder about the typical size of a herd when that came into use.

(I thought French was odd for lacking separate words for seventy, eighty and ninety.)

5

Dave 03.02.04 at 5:14 am

They’re just counting in base 5. 11-14 are irregular, as 11 and 12 are in English. As for the rest:

1 – yan
2 – chan
3 – tether
4 – mether

20 – dik

21 – yanadik
22 – channadik
23 – thetheradik
24 – methradik

30 – bumfit

31 – yanabum
32 – chanabum
33 – thetherabum
34 – metherabum

40 – jiggit

41 – yanajiggit ?

6

Dennis G. Jerz 03.02.04 at 6:20 am

This is extremely random, but in “The Music Man,” Mrs. Shin announces that she will “count to twenty in the Indian tongue,” and she says something like “ein teen tuther feather fip” before she is interrupted. The last time I saw the play, that politically incorrect passage was cut, so I’m relying mostly on my memory of having been in the play in highschool 20 years ago.

7

bad Jim 03.02.04 at 7:21 am

You got it, Dave.

In comparison, English and German have special words for eleven and twelve, but just tack on a signifier for ten thereafter. French and Italian are special up to 16; Spanish and Portuguese break over at 15. Russian is uniform: one + ten, etc.

This doesn’t seem to affect the portability of “teen” culture, though.

8

des 03.02.04 at 9:23 am

On origins:

A sci.lang post (see the rest of the thread for more discussion) says its a Celtic remnant, possibly from the defunct Celtic language Cumbrian.

Other variations:

Regional variations thoroughly mapped; a scholarly article on the subject from the Lakeland Dialect Society (for it is they!).

Gratuitous reminiscence:

It was always “yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp” when recounted to me, although this was by no means by actual shepherds. It’s a fossilised relic of Celtic which has subsequently refossilised as cute folklore, and why not?

9

John Isbell 03.02.04 at 1:40 pm

French has an eenie, meenie, minie, mo which begins am, stram, gram, then I forget but google won’t.

10

harry 03.02.04 at 3:50 pm

Thanks John. It did remember. It goes

Am, stram, gram,
Pique et pique et colégram
Bourre, bourre et ratatam
Am, stram, gram.

Thanks everyone else too. My youngest daughter (3) revels in the yan chan tether mether.. chant and will enjoy the others too. How do you people know these things?

I can’t find the gava vindue phil jones refers to, but it looks norwegian, no? And it may be the one that I can’t really remember. More likely the one I can’t remember is one of the many variants in the links.

11

phil 03.02.04 at 4:28 pm

Perhaps CT’s resident Welshman can comment on his own experience with sheep and bumfit.

12

PBen 03.03.04 at 10:10 am

From a Welsh e-friend:

I do know of this as it goes. It’s not real Cymraig but a combination of Cornish (one of the other related Celtic languages, Breton is the other) and Welsh further bastardised by forgetfulness. You’re more likely to have heard it used in Cornwall than Wales and probably not there any more as the Cornish are recovering their (almost) lost language.

IIRC I first saw this in ‘An ABC of Witchcraft’ by the dear, departed Doreen Valiente.

Look here
http://www.menai.ac.uk/clicclic/lesson8-1.htm
for the numbers one to ten, along with some other bits and pieces from the Language of Angels.

Hope this helps,
Nick

13

bad Jim 03.03.04 at 10:39 am

Googling [language] + numbers, where [language] is Basque and Gaelic, yields the stupefying result that both are completely regular with respect to ten and twenty, more like Russian than anything else.

Basque, according to the sole source consulted, counts entirely by scores. A bit like French.

14

Walter Olson 03.03.04 at 8:12 pm

The Watersons, on their album Green Fields, have a song called The Lincolnshire Shepherd with a yan, tan, tethera chorus. A.L. Lloyd writes in the liner notes: “It’s doubtful if many shepherds employ it today for scoring their sheep, but example of it may still be heard in playgrounds, especially in Cumbria, where it is used for counting-out.”

15

Cumbrianborn 03.04.04 at 7:51 am

I believe the Cumbrian counting-out system derives ultimately from Welsh which is Celtic in origin. My father taught me the numbers which were still used when I was a child (many moons ago). There’s no special significance in bumfit other than as a five-base. Nobody uses the system any more, sadly, but it’s preserved as a linguistic curiosity.

16

Cymraeg 03.05.04 at 12:18 pm

The Welsh song people are talking about is Cyfri’r Geifr, or Counting the Goats. Lyrics available here.

It’s not actually a counting song in the sense of having any numbers in it. The repeated words are colours. I think “Gava vindue, vindue, vindue” might be a mishearing of a mispronunciation (!) of “Gafr ddu, ddu, ddu, Ie fin ddu, fin ddu, fin ddu” (literally, “Goat black, black, black, with her black lip, black lip, black lip”.

For information, Welsh numbers go un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, wyth, naw, deg (and goes regular after that – un deg un for eleven, etc). Pump is pronounced ‘pimp’, which cropped up in some of the rhymes mentioned.

Comments on this entry are closed.