Counting Sheep with the Celtic numbering system; yan, tan, tethera…


In the British Isles, shepherds count their sheep day in, day out, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as I’m sure do shepherds from all corners of the globe. In fact counts are usually made after any action concerning the sheep e.g. moving them from one pasture to another or shearing.

A system of sheep-counting developed which can be traced back to the medieval period. The language of these systems was very similar to 18th century Cornish or modern Welsh. However, it is impossible to be sure of their exact origin given the corrupted form in which they have survived.

Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be based on the number twenty and lack words to describe larger quantities. 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 even drop a pebble into his pocket to represent each score (e.g. 5 score sheep = 100 sheep).

What I like about these number systems is their poetic quality, the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Here’s an example of such a shepherd’s counting system:

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Mumph, Hither, Lither, Auver, Dauver, Dic, Yahndic, Tayndic, Tetherdic, Metherdic, Mumphit, Yahn a mumphit, Tayn a mumphit, Tethera mumphit, Methera mumphit, Jig it.

If this inspires in any shape, manner or form, you could make up your own number system like this one:

Ounce, Dice, Trice, Quartz, Quince, Sago, Serpent, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Denim.

And if you do come up with a rhythmic number system please let us know and post it in comments.

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About The Henry Brothers

We are English teachers involved in ELT publishing in Turkey, and also touring the country giving workshops and presentations to English teachers, mainly on the use of poetry, storytelling and other lively activities in the classroom. We can be contacted by e-mail to istanbuljohnm@hotmail.co.uk.
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