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Yan tan tethera

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Title: Yan tan tethera  
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Subject: Sheep, Foreign language influences in English, Cumbrian dialect, Languages of the United Kingdom, Glossary of sheep husbandry
Collection: Languages of the United Kingdom, Sheep
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Yan tan tethera

Yan Tan Tethera is a sheep counting rhyme/system traditionally used by shepherds in Northern England and earlier in other parts of England and the British Isles.[1] Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the dales 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/ <ā> was broken into /ie/, /ia/ and so on in Northern English. This explains the shift to yan and ane from the Old English ān which is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz .[2][3] 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.[4]


  • Importance of keeping count 1
  • Origin and usage 2
  • Systems by region 3
    • Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, County Durham and Lancashire 3.1
    • Cumbria, Cumberland, and Westmorland 3.2
    • Wilts, Scots, Lakes, Dales and Welsh 3.3
    • Numerals in Brythonic Celtic Languages 3.4
  • In popular culture 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Importance of keeping count

In order to keep accurate records (e.g. of birth and death) and prevent animals from 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 necessary 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, foot-trimming, mulesing, etc.

Origin and usage

Sheep-counting systems ultimately derive from Brythonic Celtic languages, such as Cumbric, although Tim Gay writes: “They [sheep-counting systems from all over the British Isles] all compared very closely to 18th-century Cornish and modern Welsh”. 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 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.[5]

Systems by region

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 Southern England (Variations) West Country Dorset/Wilts
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

[Essex or East Anglia]

Cumbria, 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 Hofa Settera
7 Slaata Lethera Lofa Lettera
8 Lowra Hovera Seckera Hovera
9 Dowra Dovera Leckera 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

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), *oinā (f), *oinom (n) un un unn; onan unan
2 *dewou (m), *dewī (f) dou, (?) dau, dwy dew, diw daou, div
3 *trīs (m), *tiserīs (f) tri, (?) tri, tair tri, teyr tri, teir
4 *petwār (m), *petiserīs (f) petuar, (?) pedwar, pedair peswar, peder pevar, peder
5 *pimpe pimp pump pymp pemp
6 *swexs chwech chwech hwegh c'hwec'h
7 *sextam seith saith seyth seizh
8 *oxtū wyth wyth eth eizh
9 *nawam nau naw naw nav
10 *dekam dec deg deg dek
11 *oindekam un ar ddeg unnek unnek
12 *deudekam deuddeg dewdhek daouzek
13 *trīdekam tri ar ddeg, tair ar ddeg trydhek trizek
14 *petwārdekam pedwar ar ddeg, pedair ar ddeg peswardhek pevarzek
15 *penpedekam pymtheg pymthek pemzek
16 *swedekam un ar bymtheg hwetek c'hwezek
17 *sextandekam dau ar bymtheg, dwy ar bymtheg seytek seitek
18 *oxtūdekam deunaw etek triwec'h
19 *nawandekam pedwar ar bymtheg, pedair ar bymtheg nownsek naontek
20 *ukintī ugain ugens ugent

In popular culture

The English composer Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) composed a chamber opera entitled Yan Tan Tethera (subtitled "a mechanical pastoral") in 1984 with a libretto by the poet Tony Harrison. It is based on a folk tale about two shepherds, and includes sheep being counted using 'Yan Tan Tethera' and the rival 'One Two Three' system.

Yan Tan Tethera is the name of a book by David Herter related to his first novel, Ceres Storm.

In the Broadway musical The Music Man, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife, uses a different version of the Yan Tan Tethera ("Een Teen Tuther Feather Pip!") in the "Indian Tongue" of her "spectacle" with the schoolchildren.

English chansonnier Jake Thackray wrote, performed and recorded a song about a shepherdess, entitled Old Molly Metcalfe, with the refrain Yan Tean Tether Mether Pip she counted. In the introduction to the song he describes how Swaledale sheep farmers "count their sheep in a curious fashion," and gives the entire sequence from 1 to 20.

In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce quotes the counting rhyme onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp.

In The Mating of Lydia, by Mrs Humphrey Ward, the following counting rhyme is quoted as being from the northern dales: "Yan—tyan—tethera—methera—pimp—sethera—lethera—hovera—dovera—dick—Yan-a-dick—tyan-a-dick—tethera-a-dick—methera-a-dick—bumfit—Yan-a-bumfit—tyan-a-bumfit—tethera-a-bumfit—methera-a-bumfit—giggot"

In Terry Pratchett's novel The Wee Free Men the heroine, Tiffany Aching, is called "little jiggit" by her Grandmother, a female shepherd, as Tiffany was her twentieth grandchild; also, the titular race of sheep-stealing pictsies, use the "yan-tan-teth'ra" sequence for counting off. The "yan tan teth'ra" system of counting is said to be used for "important things," such as sheep and grandchildren. (They also use it for groups counting in unison before lifting heavy objects, but usually those are sheep or kine they're stealing.)

In a novel by Bernard Cornwell, Azincourt, the central character is an English archer, preparing for battle in 1415. He "turned to count his men. He did it in the old way of the country, like a shepherd counting his flock, just as his father had taught him. Yain, tain, eddero, he counted and got to bumfit, which was fifteen, and looked for the extra man and saw two. Tain-o-bumfit?"

In Garth Nix's novel Grim Tuesday, Grim Tuesday splits his Dawn, Noon, and Dusk servants into seven parts named Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pits, Sethera and Azer.

Joan Aiken's children's book The Cuckoo Tree features ten "Gentlemen" named Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pip, Sethera, Wineberry, Wagtail, Tarrydiddle and Den.

The children's album Fiddle Up a Tune by Eric Nagler features a song "Yan Tan Tethera," whose eponymous phrase begins an incantation used to calm leprechauns: "Yan tan tethera, one two three: All you little ones, let us be. Hevapin sethera, four five six: Lay down your magic fiddlesticks."

The Bad Shepherds, a band featuring TV comedian Adrian Edmondson, released an album entitled Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera in April 2009. It consists mostly of punk songs performed in the folk style.

In the second series of Catweazle, the eponymous character counts using a form of Yan Tan; this is part of the writer Carpenter's detailed research into historical accuracy for his 1066 wizard character.


  1. ^ Kate Distin (2010). Cultural Evolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 93.  
  2. ^ Dick Leith: A Social History of English, 1997, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-09797-5, ISBN 978-0-415-09797-0, p.45
  3. ^ Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p.191
  4. ^ Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p.79
  5. ^ , 3rd Series, Vol. 4, p. 205 (1863)Notes and Queries
  • British Archaeology Issue no 46, July 1999

External links

  • Tim Gay - Rural dialects and surviving Britons
  • Cornish numerals, including mp3s for pronunciations
  • Breton numerals
  • Carol Justus's use of this numbering system to explain pre-decimal counting systems
  • The Sheep Counting Score - By Walter Skeat, 1910
  • Modern Welsh decimal system and older vigesimal system in full
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