The next time you suffer from insomnia perhaps you should try counting sheep. Personally I always thought that this was a futile exercise. I could never see the point of what appeared to be just a mentally illustrated one times table, no matter how attractive, or light and fluffy the sheep were, I was always suspicious of that Disney-esque loop of cartoon characters with vaguely anthropomorphic faces, bouncing over a rustic gate that would appear in my minds eye. Two hundred and eleven, two hundred and twelve… Truly the stuff of nightmares.

That was until I discovered how the professionals used to count, or to be more precise ‘Tell’, sheep. Like this, (neatly listed in sets of five).

Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp
Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Dovera, Dik
Yana-dik, Tyana-dik, Tethera-dik, Methera-dik, Bumfitt
Yana-bumfitt, Tyana-bumfitt, Tethera-bumfitt, Methera-bumfitt, Giggot

Just try whispering it to yourself. See just how much more poetic, chantlike, even like a lullabye the sequence is? Even better, when you get to Giggot you start back at Yan, and so on, until you are sheep rich and sound asleep.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, this sequence, or others similar, were the words that shepherds in the UK and Northern France. used, to count the flocks that they tended, right up until the early 1900’s when the traditional role of the shepherd was superceded by modern farming methods.

There are many regional variations on this system, the one above was from Scotland, but the words are always surprisingly similar. For instance the version from the Yorkshire Dales went like so.

Yain, Tain, Eddero, Peddero, Pitts. Tayter, Later, Overro, Coverro, Dix. Yain-dix, Tain-dix, Eddero-dix, Peddero-dix, Bumfitt. Yain-o-bumfitt, Tain-o-bumfitt, Eddero-bumfitt, Peddero-bumfitt, Jiggit.

This counting system is often considered to be based on the ancient Celtic language that was said to have been marginalised by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Great Britain, although recently historians cite its continued use until modern times, even in Saxon heartlands such as Sussex (the land of the South Saxons), as proof that the so-called invasion was perhaps more of an integrated colonization. While adherents to the invasion theory consider it proof that the Celts were forced to labour in the lowliest roles such as that of shepherd.

The most recently documented version I can find was noted in 1957 in Sussex.

One-erum, two-erum, cock-erum, shu-erum, sith-erum. Sath-erum, wineberry, wagtail, tarry-diddle, den.

It is fairly plain that this version has started to be influenced by our more familiar numerals. The shepherd that used this system ‘telled’ his sheep in pairs as they passed through a stock, or gate, so although the count only has ten phrases it still accounts for 20 sheep at a time. Once twenty sheep had been counted, a score or notch was made in a stick and the count started again until all the sheep had been counted, and the tally amounted to a series of notches. Counting sheep in lots of twenty, otherwise known as ‘a score’, was universal.

It seems that as a tally system these phrases were not intended to amount to something that could be used for arithmetic, rather it was a system of representing an amount without losing count, by following a remembered rhyme and producing a physical model of the result (a series of notches). Adding ‘cock-erum’ and ‘shu-erum’ to get the result ‘wineberry’ was probably seldom done, instead the rhyme would be paused and resumed, much like the way we still use the five bar gate tally system. To count them, the sheep would need to be herded together, as one Sussex shepherd remarked.

“Otherwhiles I be forced to tell the ship over six and seven times before I can get ‘em right”. (sic)
This clearly shows that he uses more familiar numbers to count other things. Perhaps this is a clue why counting sheep the traditional way can help you get to sleep, the numbers are less likely to remind you of your bank balance, deadlines, and all the other stressful things we manipulate with numbers, or is that the other way round?

There is still a ghost of this way of counting in the way we count today. We use unique words such as eleven, twelve, thirteen, (unit first ten suffixed)up until twenty, when the compounds that we use after that such as 'twenty one' (ten first unit suffixed) comes into effect. We have a nineteen but not ninetwenty, although five-and-twenty to four can still be heard as an archaic way of describing the time 3:35.

Sources: British Archaeology, Issue no 46, July 1999. Rural dialects and surviving Britons. Simon Denison. A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect. W.D. Parish and H.Hall.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.