Wovember Words: Yan Tan Tether Mether Pip

Sheep counting systems are a fascinating fragment of our dialectal history in Britain. Thought to be remnants of Brythonic languages there are variations in the dialect words that differ from Scotland, and throughout England and Wales.

There is a similarity that runs through the systems and the ethnologist in me wants to travel back in time through the British Isles and watch how those words travelled and variations occurred. There is a very good description of the variations here, based on extensive collecting of evidence of sheep scoring systems in the 19th century.

As you will have guessed, I am a fan of archive sound and film footage and I thought this would make a lovely adornment to Wovember Words: here the late Jake Thackray, poet and songwriter, talks of the variation of counting in Swaledale in a tale of a lonely shepherdess’s life: there is the haunting refrain Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip, she counted

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiXINuf5nbI]

In case you are interested in further evidence of sheep counting systems I am grateful again to Tobar an Dulchais for providing an excelllent rabbit hole for me to fall into – there is evidence of a system using Orcadian numerals; counting sheep in Gaelic and a method from Sutherland of scoring sheep by an illiterate farmer