Yan tan tethera

Yan Tan Tethera or yan-tan-tethera is a sheep-counting system traditionally used by shepherds in Northern England and some other parts of Britain. The words are numbers taken from Brythonic Celtic languages such as Cumbric which had died out in most of Northern England by the sixth century, but they were commonly used for sheep counting and counting stitches in knitting until the Industrial Revolution, especially in the fells of the Lake District. Though most of these number systems fell out of use by the turn of the 20th century, some are still in use.

Origin and development

Sheep-counting systems ultimately derive from Brythonic Celtic languages, such as Cumbric; Tim Gay writes: “[Sheep-counting systems from all over the British Isles] all compared very closely to 18th-century Cornish and modern Welsh". It is impossible, given the corrupted form in which they have survived, to be sure of their exact origin. The counting systems have changed considerably over time. A particularly common tendency is for certain pairs of adjacent numbers to come to resemble each other by rhyme (notably the words for 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 6 and 7, or 8 and 9). Still, multiples of five tend to be fairly conservative; compare bumfit with Welsh pymtheg, in contrast with standard English fifteen.

Use in sheep counting

Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be vigesimal (based on the number twenty), but they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty; this is not a limitation of either modernised decimal Celtic counting systems or the older ones. To count a large number of sheep, a shepherd would repeatedly count to twenty, placing a mark on the ground, or move a hand to another mark on a shepherd's crook, or drop a pebble into a pocket to represent each score (e.g. 5 score sheep = 100 sheep).

Importance of keeping count

In order to keep accurate records (e.g. of birth and death) and to be alert to instances of 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 important 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 subsidised 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, tagging, foot-trimming, mulesing, etc., although sheep are far less likely to stray while being moved in a group rather than when grazing at large on open ground.


Their use is also attested in a "knitting song" known to be sung around the middle of the nineteenth century in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, beginning "yahn, tayhn, tether, mether, mimph".

Modern usage

The counting system has been used for products sold within Northern England, such as prints, beers, alcoholic sparkling water (hard seltzer in U.S.), and yarns, as well as in artistic works referencing the region, such as Harrison Birtwistle's 1986 opera Yan Tan Tethera.

Jake Thackray's song "Old Molly Metcalfe" from his 1972 album Bantam Cock uses the Swaledale "Yan Tan Tether Mether Pip" as a repeating lyrical theme.

"Yan" or "yen"

The word yan or yen for "one" in Cumbrian, Northumbrian, and some Yorkshire dialects generally represents a regular development in Northern English in which the Old English long vowel /ɑː/ <ā> was broken into /ie/, /ia/ and so on. This explains the shift to yan and ane from the Old English ān, which is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz. Another example of this development is the Northern English word for "home", hame, which has forms such as hyem, yem and yam all deriving from the Old English hām.

Systems by region

Yorkshire and Lancashire

Number Bowland Rathmell Nidderdale Swaledale Wharfedale Teesdale Wensleydale
1 Yain Aen Yain Yan Yan Yan Yain
2 Tain Taen Tain Tan Tan Tean Tain
3 Eddera Tethera Eddero Tether Tether Tether Eddero
4 Peddera Fethera Peddero Mether Mether Peddero
5 Pit Phubs Pitts Pip Pip Pitts
6 Tayter Aayther Tayter Azer Lezar Tayter
7 Layter Layather Layter Sezar Azar Later
8 Overa Quoather Overo Akker Catrah Overro
9 Covera Quaather Covero Conter Borna Coverro
10 Dix Dugs Dix Dick Dick Disc
11 Yain-a-dix Aena dugs Yaindix Yanadick Yan-a-dick Yain disc
12 Tain-a-dix Taena dugs Taindix Tanadick Tean-a-dick Tain disc
13 Eddera-a-dix Tethera dugs Edderodix Tetheradick Tether-dick Ederro disc
14 Peddera-a-dix Fethera dugs Pedderodix Metheradick Mether-dick Peddero disc
15 Bumfit Buon Bumfit Bumfit Bumfit Bumfitt
16 Yain-a-bumfit Aena buon Yain-o-Bumfit Yanabum Yan-a-bum Bumfitt yain
17 Tain-a-bumfit Taena buon Tain-o-Bumfit Tanabum Tean-a-bum Bumfitt tain
18 Eddera-bumfit Tethera buon Eddero-Bumfit Tetherabum Tethera-bum Bumfitt ederro
19 Peddera-a-bumfit Fethera buon Peddero-Bumfit Metherabum Methera-bum Bumfitt peddero
20 Jiggit Gun a gun Jiggit Jigget Jiggit Jiggit

Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and County Durham

Number Derbyshire Weardale Tong Kirkby Lonsdale Derbyshire Dales Lincolnshire
1 Yain Yan Yan Yaan Yan Yan
2 Tain Teyan Tan Tyaan Tan Tan
3 Eddero Tethera Tether Taed'ere Tethera Tethera
4 Pederro Methera Mether Mead'ere Methera Pethera
5 Pitts Tic Pick Mimp Pip Pimp
6 Tayter Yan-a-tic Sesan Haites Sethera Sethera
7 Later Teyan-a-tic Asel Saites Lethera Lethera
8 Overro Tethera-tic Catel Haoves Hovera Hovera
9 Coverro Methera-tic Oiner Daoves Dovera Covera
10 Dix Bub Dick Dik Dick Dik
11 Yain-dix Yan-a-bub Yanadick Yaan'edik Yan-a-dik
12 Tain-dix Teyan-a-bub Tanadick Tyaan'edik Tan-a-dik
13 Eddero-dix Tethera-bub Tetheradick Tead'eredik Tethera-dik
14 Peddero-dix Methera-bub Metheradick Mead'eredik Pethera-dik
15 Bumfitt Tic-a-bub Bumfit Boon, buom, buum Bumfit
16 Yain-o-bumfitt Yan-tic-a-bub Yanabum Yaan'eboon Yan-a-bumfit
17 Tain-o-bumfitt Teyan-tic-a-bub Tanabum Tyaan'eboon Tan-a-bumfit
18 Eddero-o-bumfitt Tethera-tic-a-bub Tetherabum Tead'ereboon Tethera-bumfit
19 Peddero-o-bumfitt Methera-tic-a-bub Metherabum Mead'ereboon Pethera-bumfit
20 Jiggit Gigget Jigget Buom'fit, buum'fit Figgot

Southwest England

Number South West England (Variations) West Country Dorset
1 Yahn Hant
2 Tayn Tant
3 Tether Tothery
4 Mether Forthery
5 Mumph Fant
6 Hither Sahny
7 Lither Dahny
8 Auver Downy
9 Dauver Dominy
10 Dic Dik
11 Yahndic Haindik
12 Tayndic Taindik
13 Tetherdic Totherydik
14 Metherdic Fotherydik
15 Mumphit Jiggen
16 Yahna Mumphit Hain Jiggen
17 Tayna Mumphit Tain Jiggen
18 Tethera Mumphit Tother Jiggen
19 Methera Mumphit Fother Jiggen
20 Jigif Full Score

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 Seckera Settera
7 Slaata Lethera Leckera Lettera
8 Lowra Hovera Hofa Hovera
9 Dowra Dovera Lofa 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

Wilts, Scots, Lakes, Dales and Welsh

Note: Scots here means "Scots" not "Gaelic"

Number Wilts Scots Lakes Dales Welsh
1 Ain Yan Auna Yain Un
2 Tain Tyan Peina Tain Dau
3 Tethera Tethera Para Edderoa Tri
4 Methera Methera Peddera Peddero Pedwar
5 Mimp Pimp Pimp Pitts Pump
6 Ayta Sethera Ithy Tayter Chwech
7 Slayta Lethera Mithy Leter Saith
8 Laura Hovera Owera Overro Wyth
9 Dora Dovera Lowera Coverro Naw
10 Dik Dik Dig Dix Deg
11 Ain-a-dik Yanadik Ain-a-dig Yain-dix Un ar ddeg
12 Tain-a-dik Tyanadik Pein-a-dig Tain-dix Deuddeg
13 Tethera-a-dik Tetheradik Para-a-dig Eddero-dix Tri ar ddeg
14 Methera-a-dik Metheradik Peddaer-a-dig Pedderp-dix Pedwar ar ddeg
15 Mit Bumfitt Bunfit Bumfitt Pymtheg
16 Ain-a-mit Yanabumfit Aina-a-bumfit Yain-o-bumfitt Un ar bymtheg
17 Tain-a-mit Tyanabumfitt Pein-a-bumfit Tain-o-bumfitt Dau ar bymtheg
18 Tethera-mit Tetherabumfitt Par-a-bunfit Eddero-bumfitt Deunaw
19 Gethera-mit Metherabumfitt Pedder-a-bumfit Peddero-bumfitt Pedwar ar bymtheg
20 Ghet Giggot Giggy Jiggit Ugain

Numerals in Brythonic Celtic languages

Number Ancient British Old Welsh Welsh Cornish (Kemmyn) Breton
1 *oinos (m + n), *oinā (f) un un unn; onan unan
2 *dwāu (m), *dwī (f) dou, (?) dau, dwy dew, diw daou, div
3 *trīs (m), *tisres (f) tri, (?) tri, tair tri, teyr tri, teir
4 *petwares (m), *petesres (f) petuar, (?) pedwar, pedair peswar, peder pevar, peder
5 *pempe pimp pump pymp pemp
6 *swexs chwech chwech hwegh c'hwec'h
7 *sextan seith saith seyth seizh
8 *oxtū wyth wyth eth eizh
9 *nawan nau naw naw nav
10 *dekan dec deg deg dek
11 *oinodekan un ar ddeg unnek unnek
12 *dwāudekan deuddeg dewdhek daouzek
13 *trīdekan tri ar ddeg, tair ar ddeg trydhek trizek
14 *petwardekan pedwar ar ddeg, pedair ar ddeg peswardhek pevarzek
15 *pempedekan pymtheg pymthek pemzek
16 *swexsdekan un ar bymtheg hwetek c'hwezek
17 *sextandekan dau ar bymtheg, dwy ar bymtheg seytek seitek
18 *oxtūdekan deunaw etek triwec'h
19 *nawadekam pedwar ar bymtheg, pedair ar bymtheg nownsek naontek
20 *wikantī ugain ugens ugent

See also

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