Friday 11 January 2013
Keeping Score, by Laurie Graham
So today we'll be counting sheep. You may already have heard of Yan Tan Tether. Not the opera by Harrison Birtwhistle, but the ancient counting system. Shepherds have always needed to know how many sheep they have, whether for mediaeval grazing rights or EU livestock subsidies. Traditionally they'd count them last thing at night and again at first light, to see if any were upside down in a thorn hedge or had been taken by wolves. If there's a way to come to grief you can depend on a sheep to find it. And not surprisingly, the same system was adopted for counting stitches on a knitting needle. Knitting was a likely pastime for shepherds in the winter, when the sheep had been brought down off the moor. Perhaps yan, tan, tether was even used in large families, to do a head count of children.
Every sheep-rearing area had its own sheep counting words, all reckoned to be closely related to the Celtic Breton and Cornish languages. In Yorkshire, for instance, the words might vary a little from one dale to the next, but even in areas distant from each other similarities can be detected.
Here are the words from Swaledale, for instance. Yan, Tan, Tether, Mether, Pip,
Azer, Sezer, Acker, Conter, Dick
Yanadix, Tanadix, Tetherdix, Metherdix, Bumfit
Yanabum, Tanabum, Tetherbum, Metherbum, Jigget.
'Jigget' gets us to 20 sheep, at which point the shepherd would put a pebble in his pocket or score a line on a stick. Then he'd start on the next twenty. You'll notice the word 'score.' Sheep are counted by the score.
And just to show you an example of how it was done on the other side of the country, here's the Wiltshire version:
Hant, Tant, Tothery, Fothery, Fant
Sanny, Danny, Downy, Dominy, Dix
Haindix, Taindix, Totherdix, Fotherdix, Jiggen
Hainjiggen, Tainjiggen, Totherjiggen, Fotherjiggen, Full Score.
This lovely, idiosyncratic style of sheep-counting died out after World War One. I imagine nowadays they use one of those little clickers, like the cabin crew on a Ryanair flight. Or maybe sheep have bar codes that can be scanned. Such a pity. I think I may just have to learn one of these hypnotic and poetic lists ready for the next time insomnia strikes.
And so ends today's wool-gathering.