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Counting sheep (yan, tan, tethera) may help you sleep

Cumbrian sheep

Black-faced Cumbrian sheep

Photo courtesy virtual-lakes.co.uk  

Close your eyes and count some sheep, and very soon you'll fall asleep, we were told as children. English-born Ian Scott-Parker, who now lives in Hurricane, Utah (US), can do that in one of the strangest languages we've ever heard.

"My father taught me to count yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dic almost as soon as I had learned to count in the more common one, two, three," he told us. "Bumfit for fifteen was a great childhood favorite."

Ian, a sophisticated man of the world with refined tastes and wide-ranging interests, grew up in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. These days few if any people still speak the ancient dialect.

"There are traditional methods of counting sheep in many of the Lakeland dales, though none seem to still be in actual use," says an article on a Cumbrian website, The Countryside Museum. "Garnett in 1910 said even then that the method was almost obsolete and as for the names of the numbers, 'but few of the farmers remember them'. 'Yan' is still used for 'one', but the others are only known as curiosities.

"Traditionally the shepherd counts to twenty, then he marks a stone or stick with a 'score' and starts again. The final total is given as so many score of sheep. The method seems to be common to old Cymric or Celtic areas although the words themselves have taken slightly different forms over the years."

The website displays a list of numerals in three ancient dialects - Keswick (Cumbria), Wensleydale (West Yorkshire) and Welsh.

Most of the number words are similar in all three dialects, but others are quite different. Nine, for instance is dovera in Keswick, horna in Wensleydale, and naw (pronounced now) in Wales.

Not everyone agrees that counting sheep can cure insomnia. It's too boring, according to two Oxford scientists.

Fifty people who had trouble getting to sleep were divided into three groups, which were asked to (a) count sheep (b) imagine a placid scene, such as a beach or waterfall or (c) act normally. The sheep counters took 20 minutes longer than usual to drop off.

We scoured the internet for a possible cure, and at last found one that we now offer you. It's a much better way to count virtual sheep. Just visit Jumpin' Jehosaphat change the 1 in the left box to 31 (that precise number is important), then press Go Jehosaphat!

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Story first posted May 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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