Yan tan tethera and the Rock of the Old North

The Old North
The Old North: source and licensing.

Just read this interesting post on the origins of the various, related counting systems used by shepherds in northern England, Scotland and Wales, often referred to as yan tan tethera.

This called to mind the fascinating chapter on “the Old North” in Norman Davies’ fascinating book Vanished Kingdoms. The Old North consisted of what are today northern England and southern Scotland, though Davies counsels against imposing this later division on the places, peoples and events of the period “between the dusk of the Roman Britannia and the dawn of England and Scotland” (p.43).

The Old North began as one of the areas of Britain – along with Wales and Cornwall – to which (Celtic) Britons, often highly Romanized, were pushed back by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Ultimately the Old North, unlike Wales, would succumb to the waves of Anglo-Saxon and Viking invaders and settlers that swept across it over centuries. Its “Cumbric” languages, too, largely vanished.

Some linguistic traces of the Old North have survived, however. One of these is the name Cumbria (“land of the Welsh”); another is the yan tan tethera counting systems.

The linked post gives some variants of this. Davies provides a table of three versions, the Keswick, Ayrshire and (modern) Welsh, as set out below:

Keswick Ayrshire Welsh
1 yan yinty un
2 tyan tinty dau
3 tethera tetheri tri
4 methera metheri pedwar
5 pimp bamf pump
6 sethera leetera chwech
7 lethera seetera saith
8 hovera over wyth
9 dovera dover naw
10 dick dik deg

What is rather moving is the reason that Davies ascribes to these survivals:

It is well attested that people faced by the decline of their native language are particularly reluctant to abandon two things: the numbers, whereby they learned to count, and the prayers through which they addressed their God.

Shepherds across the Old North:

continue to count their sheep using the numerals of their Brythonic forebears. The correspondences are unmistakeable, and they were reflected in inscriptions still visible until recently on the old sheepmarket at Cockermouth. They are the very last echoes of the Old North.

Later, Davies describes the decline into obscurity of Dun Breteann, “the fort of the Britons” – now better known as Dumbarton Castle, but previously known as Alt Clud, “Clyde Rock”, capital of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. Echoes of that “Brythonic” past can, he suggests, still be heard in such names as “Clan Campbell” (from the Gaelic for “a person whose speech is unintelligible”). He concludes:

One would like to think, therefore, that somewhere in the shadow of the Rock the old ways lingered on. Perhaps, in some modest tavern or fisherman’s cabin, the old-timers might have chatted in the old Cumbric-Brythonic tongue, singing the old songs, and telling the old tales about Ceredig and St Patrick, about Mungo and the Salmon, about the great battles of Catraeth, Nechtansmere and the Seven Sleepers. They would have wondered about the fate of the kinsfolk who had sailed away into exile, never to return. And they would have taught their children to count on their fingers: yinty, tinty, tetheri, metheri, bamf… (p.80)

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