Friday, 18 September 2009

Yan, tyan, tethera . . .

Counting sheep. That's what I do many a wee small hour now that I no longer sleep as soundly as I once did.

But my one, two, three is a long way distant from the manner of counting sheep in past times, and it varied from area to area. In Wiltshire, for instance, and probably other parts of Wessex, the following was used:

1 ain 2 tain 3 tethera 4 methera 5 mimp 6 ayta 7 slayta 8 laura 9 dora 10 dik 11 ain-a-dik 12 tain-a-dik 13 tethera-dik 14 methera-dik 15 mit 16 ain-a-mit 17 tain-a-mit 18 tethera-mit 19 gethera-mit 20 ghet.

In our local Museum here in Carmarthen, I know that in their wonderful attic stockrooms there are tally sticks which had notches for counting. The Shire book on Shepherding Tools and Customs I am referring to for the counting methods, suggests that counting by voice went up to 39, and then a notch would be cut in the tally stick and the counting started again. In Ceredigion (Cardiganshire to those outside of Wales) a slightly different tallying method was used, where there was differentiation between lambs, wethers, rams and overall head of sheep.

Here in Wales, we used: un, dua, tri, pedwar, pum, chwe, saith, wyth, naw, dig, warddy, dueddy, triardy, peswarddy, peinthaddy, waythaddy, saythaddy, sythaddy, nowjaddy and ugain.

In the Scottish borders it was: yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dik, yanadik, tyanadick, tethera-dik, methera-dik, bumfitt, yana-bumfitt, tyana-bumfitt, tethera-bumfitt, methera-bumfitt and giggot.

In Cornwall it was: on, dow, tray, pajy, pemp, wayth, sayth, ayth, now, daye, ignak, dowthak, traythak, peswarthat, pienthak, waythak, saythak, sythak, owjak and uggans.

This link will take you to a Cornish language page, where you get some idea of the pronunciation.

As you can see, there are several words which are similar in each counting, especially the word for 5 - being pimp, pemp, pum, and mimp. One also has similar roots: on, yan, un and ain. Three also has similarities in tray, tethera, tri, and tethera again. Apart from the Welsh dig and the Scottish dik (10) and the Welsh and Cornish words for 20 - ugain and uggans, the words used for ten, fifteen and twenty are totally distinct - my favourite is bumfitt! My eldest daughter can read Cornish almost as well as she reads Welsh as she says the languages are so similar.


  1. Really interesting post :-) On holiday once in Wales we bought a little book of Welsh words and thought some were similar to French! I often wonder about regional accents too and the way they are being lost. My own grandfather from Sussex had a wonderful soft accent whereas I think my mine is quite harsh. He had a lovely way of saying such words as roots :-)

  2. How interesting ... I have Cornish roots from my G Grandfather so the Cornich numbers were fascinating. There seems connections til you come to English ... and then there seems nothing ??? ... I suppose it was then mixed with latin.

  3. I was noticing the similarities in some words---although pronunciations would uttlerly baffle me.
    My maternal grandfather worked as a young man with Canadian lumberman who had migrated to "upstate" New York--he liked to amuse us when we were children by suddenly switching to French to count--he could get as far as ten.
    Angie: I recently read an historical novel about Thomas More and his household. I got the impression that Latin was spoken amoung the educated men of that time as a sort of snobbish thing. And then there's Chaucer---
    BB: did you ever get that book about the evolution of language? I'd have to look up the title, but something to do with the wheel?

  4. Hello Jennie, that was fascinating to read, what a mine of information you are! Did you know that Adrian Edmondson (from various comedy programmes) and some others have formed a band called the Bad Shepherds and have an album out called Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera. They sing punk songs in a folk style. :-)

  5. That brings back a memory or two of teaching both children to count in Welsh. They were great, but I couldn't get much past chwe, and then I'd start repeating myself, hopeless :)