An introduction to Brythonic numbers

It may be that counting sheep helps some get to sleep, but shepherds count sheep to make sure the little darlings are all present and correct. Not content with "one...two...", shepherds would frequently use Celtic-based numbers:

This counting system was used until recently throughout the North and West of England to my knowledge (the words shown below are Cumbrian in origin), with variants in other parts of the country, although the custom (or practice) ceased earlier in the South, although I recently heard of the continuing use in Lincolnshire dialects as well.

The number system used is base ten, although after fifteen, there's a sub-base of five used, as may be seen below. Shepherds would use the fingers of one hand to count (either closed, bent or extended), and notches on the shepherd's crook formed a secondary counting mechanism. In this way, large numbers could be counted with ease. According to Wikipedia:

"In particular, the names of the numbers fit a pattern in which the index finger and forefinger each represent 0 when retracted, 1 when bent, and 2 when straight, while the other three fingers each represent 5 when extended. The rhyming transitions occur with the straightening of a finger, and the pattern repeats at intervals of 5. Thus, with two hands, a person can count up to 399."¹
The numbers are sometimes still heard as a part of skipping songs - in fact, I heard them being sung by children playing in a street in Richmond only about two years ago.

  1. Yan
  2. Tan
  3. Tethera
  4. Pethera
  5. Pimp
  6. Sethera
  7. Methera
  8. Hovera
  9. Covera
  10. Dik
  11. Ena dix
  12. Tena Dix
  13. Thethera dix
  14. Pethera dix
  15. Bumpit
  16. Ena bumpit
  17. Tena bumpit
  18. Tethera bumpit
  19. Pethera bumpit
  20. Siggit

To some of you, this may look (or sound) rather familiar. In that case, consider this - there is a connection with the many of the Brythonic languages, Breton, Welsh and Cornish.

The numbers also form part of the chorus of The Lincolnshire Poacher by The Watersons, on their album Green Fields. Thanks to Gritchka, I can also advise of a play 'Yan Tan Tethera' by Tony Harrison.


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