Following from this post about sheep counting words in Cumbria, TEAM WOVEMBER have been doing some sleuth work re: other sheep-counting words in different places and regions. According to a source quoted below, a variation on Yan Tan Tether Mether Pip was used in Lincolnshire, with a further version was reported to have been in use by Native Americans in the late nineteenth century. Judith Lesley Marshall seems to have come across this text too, as she refers to it in this article which also describes yet another regional variation on sheep counting words used in Teesdale. You can hear Judith describing the Teesdale counting words by clicking the Radio Teesdale link below, where you shall also find the counting systems recorded in Lincolnshire and in America mentioned by Dee Duke & Rowena Edlin-White.
This got TEAM WOVEMBER wondering: the only reference we could find anywhere confirming connections between the counting words of Native Americans with those used in the North of England is in a musical written in 1957, called The Music Man. There is a scene in this play where the wife of the Mayor exclaims “I will now count to twenty in the Indian tongue! Een teen tuther featherfip!” Is this line in the play responsible for the idea that Native American peoples were using these old counting words with their Gaelic origins, or does it reflect that through the dark mechanisms of Imperialism the counting words were imposed onto Native American culture by the time the play was written? This webpage quotes the old counting words as definitely being non-indigenous but were they nevertheless assimilated into the culture? If you have any knowledge on this topic we would love to hear it; seeing how these words have traveled tells an important though sometimes troubling story.
Lincolnshire Shepherds counted:
Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pinp,
Sethera, lethera, hovera, covera, di,
Yen-a-dik, tan-a-dick, tethera-dik, pethera-dik, bumfit,
Yan-a-bumfit, tan-a-bumfit, tuthera-bumfit, pethera-bumfit, figgit (20).
At the same time, around 1890, Native Americans were also using:
Een, teen, thuther, futher, fipps,
Suther, luther, uther, duther, dix,
Een-dix, teen-dix, tuther-dix, futher-dix, bumpit,
Anny-bumpit, tanny-bumpit, tuther-bumpit, futher-bumpit, giggit, Anny-gigit (21).
No-one can account for the similarity, both were passed down orally.
Dee Duke & Rowena Edlin-White, Woolgatherings for dyers and spinsters, A Shepherd’s Miscellany, No. 9, published in Nottingham, 1996
We could think of no illustration more fitting for this post on counting words that Ann Kingstone’s beautiful cushion design, Yan Tan Tether, worked in Blacker Yarns Black Welsh Mountain 4-ply and Shetland 4-ply, photo © Marie Wright