Yan Tan Tethera

Yan Tan Tethera was a traditional numeric jargon used by shepherds to count sheep in northern England and southern Scotland. Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of specialised 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.

Though most of these number systems fell out of use by 1910, many are still in use and the word yan continues to mean "one" in some northern English dialects. The practice may also have given rise to the notion of counting sheep to lull oneself to sleep, possibly because the numbers were also a source of children's rhymes (such as "eeny, meeny, miny, mo").

The 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 subsidized 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 a Celtic language, possibly Welsh, Cumbric or the speech of a British population surviving after the Anglo-Saxon conquest. It is impossible, given the corrupted form in which they have survived, for us to be sure of their exact origin. One major tendency is that certain pairs of adjacent numbers now resemble each other by rhyme (notably 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 6 and 7, or 8 and 9), even though this probably was not the case in the original language. Still, multiples of five tend to be fairly conservative, such as 15, "bumfit" in most varieties, versus Welsh pymtheg.

Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be vigesimalbased on the number twenty. Moreover, they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty (though this is not a limitation of modernised decimal Celtic counting systems). 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. 100 sheep = 5 score sheep).

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

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

Numerals in Brythonic Celtic Languages

Number Proto Celtic Old Welsh Welsh Cornish (Kemmyn) Breton
1 *Oino- Un Un Unn (definite), Onan Unan
2 *Dwā(w)-, *Dwei (f.) Dou Dau, Dwy (fem) Dew, Diw f. Daou
3 *Tri-, *Tisres Tri Tri,Tair (fem) Tri, Teyr f. Tri
4 *Kweteres, *Kwetesres Petuar Pedwar, Pedair (fem) Peswar, Peder f. Pevar
5 *Kwenkwe 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 *Nawan Nau Naw Naw Nav
10 *Dekam Dec Deg Deg Dek
11 Un ar ddeg Unnek Unnek
12 *Dou-dekam Deuddeg Dewdhek Daouzek
13 Tair ar ddeg Trydhek Trizek
14 Pedair ar ddeg Peswardhek Pevarzek
15 *Kwenkwe-dekan Pymtheg Pympthek Pemzek
16 Un ar bymtheg Hwetek C'hwezek
17 Dwy ar bymtheg Seytek Seitek
18 Deunaw Etek Triwec'h
19 Pedair ar bymtheg Nownsek Naontek
20 *Wikantī Ugain Ugens Ugent


In the Broadway musical "The Music Man", Eulalie Mackechnie 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.

The English composer Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) composed a chamber opera entitled Yan Tan Tethera (subtitled "a mechanical pastoral") in 1984. It is about shepherds, and includes sheep being counted using 'Yan Tan Tethera' and the rival 'One Two Three' system.

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, Mrs Humphrey Ward) the following counting rhyme is quoted of 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 fairies, use the "yan-tan-teth'ra" sequence for counting off.

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

In Garth Nix 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."

It is also worth noting the number theory behind the scheme. Although decimal up to 10, in most dialects the scheme then changes to counting in base 5. It is possible to carry out limited arithmetic in base 5 on numbers up to 30 (decimal) using your fingers as a rudimentary abacus. It is pure speculation, but there may be a connection between the two facts, and the shepherds of England may have carried out limited accounting on their fingers.

One reason for the use of base five is suggested by the design of the shepherds crook which has grooves, nobbles, nicks or other impressions on it to enable the shepherd to note the number of fives counted on the other hand. He might also have had a handful of pebbles, putting one in his pocket each time he reached 20. Using base five counting in this way allows the shepherd to total as many sheep as the markings on the crook will allow, each mark representing five sheep.

See also

  • The aviator's checklist for pre-landing procedure : BUMMMFITCHH

External links

Search another word or see giggeton Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature