Wednesday, 21 January 2009

How to count sheep!

Long ago - not sure how long ago - shepherds who cared for large flocks of sheep on the upper moorland of Wensleydale and Swaledale had their own special method of checking them. If you read Dreadnought's blog you will know that he counts the sheep under his care every day. It is a wise move because if a sheep CAN find a way out it WILL!
Sheep on the upper moorlands would be collected in maybe twice a year - once for "tupping" in the late Autumn, to produce lambs in late Spring, and maybe once for a check on feet, worms etc, and to be shorn. These flocks were often hundreds so shepherds devised their own method to count them.
Here is how he counted the first twenty:
Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Dovera, Dik(10)
Yan Dik, Tan Dik, Tethera Dik, Methera Dik, Bumfit (15), Yan Bumfit, Tan Bumfit, Tethera Bumfit, Methera Bumfit, Jigget (20).
When the shepherd got to twenty he would raise his index finger and start again. When he had all five fingers up it would mean he had got to 5x20, or one hundred. Then he would put a stone in his pocket and start again.
Although it sounds complicated, when you think about counting up to large numbers it was probably the easiest way (although why they didn't use the words one to twenty I don't know - probably something to do with local dialect).
I think the method died out during the early twentieth century. There are still a few shepherd's bothies around, where the shepherd would live, high on the moorland, during lambing time. Often now the sheep are brought in to lamb - or if they are left out the farmer can easily nip round them on his quad bike. Like all other aspects of farming, the really hard graft has been taken out of it. All that they really need now is a way of stopping cows doing great heaps of poo which needs cleaning up daily when they are indoors. (Sorry - I didn't intend to mention poo again on my blog. The trouble is that in Winter, with lots of stock indoors, it does become a fairly major preoccupation.)

32 comments:

Robin Mac said...

As ever, I love the stories you tell about the shepherds and the sheep in Yorkshire, it is just so different from the Australian experience - sheep are numbered in thousands rather than hundreds on the sheep stations I am used to. The mustered mobs still have to be counted through the races when they are coming in for dipping or shearing though. Cheers, Robin

BarbaraS said...

Fascinating post about the language of counting, WoG. I am getting a lot of insight into sheep farming and these historical asides are amazing.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Really interesting dialect for the numbers - I'm sure someone must've studied this but I'm not sure who, off the top of my head... will drop back in if I find anything!

mand said...

I came across this counting method when i was seven, on a maths practice card - since i'm more linguist than mathematician, it caught my interest n i've remembered it. The 'twenty' was 'giggot' or 'gigot' but otherwise it went exactly as you have it here, and i've come across other versions of the same thing in the intervening years.

Counting in base twenty makes more sense in some contexts than using base ten (which is decimal). I suppose the latter has ousted the former since computers etc took over.

Similarly base twelve belongs in, or at least harks from, the old days (dozens etc - which is why we have 60 minutes in an hour instead of 100, and 24 hours in a day). French n other languages have fossils of this usage, eg quatre-vingts = four-twenties, for eighty.

I love all this stuff.

willow said...

Fascinating! I love all your shepherd stories.

acornmoon said...

This is an amazing story, how interesting, it's like poetry or music, the words have rhythm, maybe that made it less monotonous?

The poem below is wonderful, you are very gifted.

I must tell you that one of my designs will soon be a wooden jigsaw. I followed up on your suggestion, so thank you!

Teresa said...

This was so interesting and enjoyable! Please keep 'em coming!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Weaver, I just love those words for the numbers! I think I'll start using them - will have to decide what for - I'll let you know!

I didn't know farmers went round the flocks on quad bikes! I do so love to see the sheep rounded up with sheep dogs, there's something so special and uplifting about that.

There's an Award waiting for you over at my blog ...

Leenie said...

Thanks for the fun info. I came from dairy farming and our herd stayed around forty so counting cows was a lot simpler. I simpithize with the poo problem. I was assigned to cleaning quite often. Not fun.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

Even though you mention that hard graft has been taken out of the job, I certainly don't envy any farmer out on the hillsides in our bitterly cold weather!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I do love the counting words here, I've heard of them before in various places.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Can't imagine thousands Robin Mac in our tiny fields - those great expanses must be fantastic.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Glad you are enjoying them, Barbara.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Rachel. If you find out anything, I shall be pleased to hear.

The Weaver of Grass said...

How interesting mand. I had never thought about it all in that context.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Glad you enjoy it willow.

The Weaver of Grass said...

So pleased about the jig-saw, acornmoon. Let me know the details when it is on sale - we are fanatical jig saw doers!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Teresa

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks Raph - shall visit you as soon as my visitors have gone.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Leenie - I see you know all about mucking out!

The Weaver of Grass said...

True, Derrick - farming still holds a lot of hard graft, cold and wet.

Poet in Residence said...

Some of these old numbers are, of course Cymraeg (Celtic), i.e. Welsh.
Yorkshire was in ancient times part of Wales, a country which once covered 60%-70% or more of mainland Britain, and there are still Welsh names to be found in the region; Pen-y-Ghent being the most obvious.
Some of the numbers eg. Pimp/Pimp for Five have not changed at all, and some slightly such as Dik/Deg for ten.

Heather said...

We all know you can't have a farm without poo, so you dont' have to apologise for mentioning it! That way of counting is stirring things in my memory but I can't think where I have heard it before. Those old dialect words are fascinating and I hope someone is recording them so they won't be lost forever. I would think there is still quite a bit of hard graft to farming, even if quad bikes and other modern items of equipment lighten the load.

Dragonstar said...

Cow sized poo in quantity is impossible to ignore!
Fascinating counting words.

Janice Thomson said...

What a fascinating bit of info Weaver. The things I've learned coming here...

jinksy said...

I've met those counting words somewhere before, but as a South Coast dweller all my life, goodness alone knows where - love the rythm of them, though, and as poo is part of life, who could object to mentioning it - often...

Reader Wil said...

Hi WoG, I shall read your story later! I have tagged you for a game. If you like to join us please go to my blog to see the rules of the game. I'll soon come back!

Reader Wil said...

Me again. Hey! This is an interesting and amusing story. I didn't know that sheep were counted that way. Thanks for telling!

Gramma Ann said...

Enjoyed your story again, I had never heard of that way of counting, but then again why would I, I'm from USA. I was a farmer, so understand the poo issue. LOL ;)

patteran said...

Late again! I first came across this ingenious methodology when directing a production of Tony Harrison's 'The Nativity'. His Biblical shepherds only go up to ten, I think, but I researched the process and we worked out a whole audience-involvement (they were the sheep) routine built around it - sort of medieval hip-hop!

Thanks for another fascinating post, Pat.

The Weaver of Grass said...

What lovely stories have been added - glad it has roused so much interest.

DYLANESQ said...

More on Yan, Tan, Tethera etc:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yan_tan_tethera