Language relics: Cumbrian sheep counting

Cumbrian is an extinct Brittonic language that was spoken in the Hen Ogledd or the “Old North” which comprises what is now northern England and southern Scotland. It is thought to have gone extinct in the twelfth century following the expansion of the Scottish Gaelic and Anglican kingdoms. Despite being extinct for over eight centuries some interesting relics of the language remain.

There is a rhyming counting system that is most often associated with shepherds’ sheep counting which is believed to be a relic of Cumbrian or even Old Brittonic numbers. It should be mentioned that some alternate theories have suggested this counting system was derived from nursery rhymes though there is no evidence for that and on the contrary the fact that it is used to count sheep also suggests otherwise.

There are some dialectical variations but the counting from one to twenty is as follows; yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yanadick, tyanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, bumfit, yanabumfit, tyanabumfit, tetherabumfit, metherabumfit, gigot.

It’s quite interesting how the numbers over 10 (dick) are produced. Like many other languages it utilizes making a compound word, however 11-14 are built upon the 10 whereas 15 introduces a new word (bumfit) as opposed to making a compound word. Then 16-19 makes compound words from 15. Many languages produce the 11-19 through a compound word based on the 10.

It’s quite delightful to listen to though the compound numbers are a bit of a tongue twister. Despite the Cumbrian language being supplanted it is easy to understand how the system of counting used daily by shepherds could survive especially in some of the more remote areas of Cumbria like the Lake District. Interestingly, it is believed that the famous nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” is derived from hovera, dovera, dick. Unfortunately Cumbrian is a dead language but it is known to be closely related to Welsh so you can listen to it to get an idea what Cumbrian might have sounded like.

The photo is from the Lake District in Cumbria and is courtesy of Flickr user Michael Brace and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.


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