YAN TAN TETHERA.

I just got an Amazon package with some books I’ve wanted for a long time (thanks, Prentiss!), including Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (mentioned here). I already had his Collected Poems, Bunting’s own selection, but this adds forty pages of uncollected work, including such fine poems as his little elegy for Lorine Niedecker:

To abate what swells
use ice for scalpel.
It melts in its wound
and no one can tell
what the surgeon used.
Clear lymph, no scar,
no swathe from a cheek’s bloom.

But what I’m here to discuss is the last of the “Uncollected Odes”:

      Dentdale conversation
Yan tan tethera pethera pimp
nothing to waste but nothing to skimp.
Lambs and gimmers and wethers and ewes
what do you want with political views?
Keep the glass in your windows clear
where nothing whatever’s bitter but beer.

Catchy first line, no? Ponder it for a while and guess what it means; then go below the fold and I’ll tell you.


It’s the numbers from one to five in the old sheep-counting sequence of north England. It’s clearly from a Celtic source closely related to Welsh, in which the numbers are un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump; this page has a collection of twenty such sequences (and if you know of others, Mr. John Whitehead of Clitheroe would like to hear from you). There’s a discussion in this Crooked Timber thread, and Harrison Birtwistle wrote an opera called ” Yan Tan Tethera.”
Dentdale is the valley of the Dent in Cumbria in northwest England, just southwest of Bunting’s native Northumbria; Brigflatts (the Quaker meeting house where Bunting is buried, to be distinguished from Briggflatts the poem, with an extra g) is at its west end, just southwest of Sedbergh (with a silent g). A gimmer (with a hard g) is ‘a ewe between the first and second shearing.’

Comments

  1. hickory dickory dock

  2. Oddly enough, Terry Pratchett uses yan tan tetra as part of his invented language for the Nac Mac Feegles in A Hat Full Of Sky and The Wee Free Men, both fantastic children’s books.
    But anyway, the first thing I thought of when I read this was eggum peggum.
    See also here.
    Eggum, peggum, penny leggum
    Popsolorum Jig:
    Eeny, meeny, ficcaty fee
    Dil dol domini
    Alla beranti, middle di danti
    Ficcaty forni a rusticus.

  3. Yan tan tethera is very familiar to me, but I can’t tell you where I first heard it. Probably quite widely known in Britain (unlike dialect such as ‘The spuggies are fledged’!) I see Tony Harrison (also a Yorkshire poet) wrote a play of this name too. I can only imagine it’s a children’s counting rhyme (and I’m from London, not Yorkshire).

  4. this is going to drive me crazy. as soon as i read “yan tan tethera,” i could just hear the little sequence in my head:
    yan tan tethera
    tethera pethera pimp
    where could i have come across this before? english folk song is my only guess right now.

  5. Roxanne, I sang this in a folk chorus I was in once.

    Yan tan tethera, tethera pethera pimp
    Fifty notches up to now, and one yow with a limp
    Sethera methera hovera, and covera up to dick
    [forgotten line here]
    I counts ’em up to fitchit; at fitchit there’s a notch
    There’s more to bein’ a shepherd than to bein’ on watch
    There’s lings to chop, and lambing time, and snow upon the rick
    [another forgotten line]

    Maybe you can Google it from that fragment.

  6. I was about to give up — every phrase I googled got no results — but then I tried “there’s more to bein’ a shepherd” and (after agreeing to substitute “being”) hit paydirt.

  7. I knew what it was, but really, the first association to run through my mind was “One Ton Tomato”/Guantanamera.
    What does the Complete Bunting have that the Collected Bunting doesn’t? (Not that I won’t get the Complete, but I might get it sooner.)

  8. “Sethera methera hovera, and covera up to dick
    [forgotten line here]
    I counts ’em up to fitchit; at fitchit there’s a notch”
    sethera – seacht (Ir) – what’s the Welsh?
    hovera – ocht (ir) – maybe ‘oft’?
    Apparently Welsh may also add the ‘a’ particle in counting, followed by and ‘h’ before a vowel.
    dick is pretty obvious, along with fitchit, except that the ‘f’ sounds more Gaelic than Welsh, which should have “gw”.

  9. Similar sequences were used in Sussex (sheep counting seems to be a very ancient art). I’ll post details when I get home and have a chance to look it up.

  10. Carlos: It has “They Say Etna” (a longer poem parallel to the “Sonatas” of the Collected), 12 uncollected Odes, and 19 uncollected Overdrafts, along with a few notes, mostly publication details. Oh, and a few school poems and two limericks. Here’s the first, from a 1935 letter to Pound:
    What a pity that Bela Bartok
    Cannot give his smug public a shock
        By writing in parts
        For the hiccups and farts
    And conducting the piece with
    [sic!]

  11. Jim, the Welsh for seven is saith, and eight is wyth.
    You can see numbers in the six modern Celtic languages here some versions of the sheep counting numbers here

  12. spot on! the watersons it is. i should have known. now my poor wee brain can have a rest…

  13. My father taught me yan, tan, tethera etc as a child. The sequence becomes less logical after twenty, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten how. I don’t think anyone uses it nowadays, though I did hear one very old farmer using it when I was very young. And, as someone has pointed out, the numbers vary slightly on a regional basis.

  14. As a child I was very fond of Joan Aiken‘s Willoughby Chase novels, set in a sort of alternate-universe version of 19th century England. In one of them, there was a gang of smugglers who went by the names Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, and so on (up to Wagtail, Tarry-Diddle, and Den, IIRC). Somewhere along the way, an old shepherd explained that “yan, tan, tethera” was how shepherds counted out their sheep. I assumed at the time that that detail was fictional, but evidently not.

  15. Omniglot,
    Then there are two forms there that are more Goidelic than Brythonic. Is there some historical explanation?

  16. The father, from the west coast of Cumberland (b. 1949) and only one generation removed from the family farm, is certainly familiar with ‘yan, tan, tethera’.

  17. You might like to look at this book, Part of the Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University: K Lindsley, wood engravings for H D Rawnsley, Yan, tyan, tethera (1987) • © Fleece Press, Kathleen Lindsley – it’s right here in my home town, but I found it via the RSS feed for Coudal’s Fresh Signals

  18. Ooh, very nice — you can read the whole thing! Many thanks.

  19. Try Jake Thackery (or Thackray) folk singer, his song Molly Metcalfe. It,s a folk song about a woman sheepherder in Swaledale, strangely enough, counting sheep in the old language. Suggest Kazaa.com for the down loader.

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