Sheep Counting Scores

Among the commonly cited evidence for Cumbric are a series of counting scores collected in the north of England since the 19th century, thought to have survived as a dialect remnant of the language.  Although often called sheep counting scores, there is no contemporary evidence that they were used for this purpose and, during the period in which they were recorded, they were generally used only in knitting or by children in games.  The exact relationship of these numerals to Cumbric has been debated by linguists.  Whilst there does appear to be a definite link with the Brythonic languages, establishing that this reflects a genuine survival from Cumbric as opposed to a later introduction is far from simple.


We know nothing of these numerals before the 18th century and, even at the time many of the scores were collected, they were said to have fallen out of use even by the shepherds who were supposed to have retained them.  In the vast majority of cases, they were used only by children in the same way "eeny, meeny, minie, mo" is used today.  In any case we have no evidence that the scores were ever used for counting in the everyday dialects of the region and both Scots and the Cumbrian dialect have numerals directly derived from Old English.  The case for their being used for counting sheep has been dismissed on practical grounds and they admittedly seem rather cumbersome for that task, but it is possible that shepherds or remote communities could have retained such systems.

The Scores

A large number of scores have been collected since the 19th century, the majority in northern England and lowland Scotland, but examples occur from as far away as Orkney, Connaught, Lincolnshire and Essex.  Almost all show a strong correspondence of forms and some of the apparent differences are no doubt due to the whim of the author in transcribing the (perhaps unfamiliar) sounds. 

The following represent an incomplete sample of scores:

  1 2 3 4 5 6
Furness yan taen tedderte medderte pimp haata
Borrowdale yan tyan tethera methera pimp sethera
Kirkby Stephen yan tahn teddera meddera pimp settera
Nidderdale yain tain eddero peddero pitts tayter
Westmorland yaan tyaan taed'ere mead'ere mimp haites
Pollockshaws zaindie taindie tether a mether a bamf a seater
Kyle zinty tinty tetheri metheri bamf leetera
Hawick zeendi teendi taedheri muudheri baombe heeturi
Edinburgh (z)eenty teenty tethery methery banful eetful
Welsh un dwy tair pedair pump chwech

  7 8 9 10 15 20
Furness slaata (l)owera dowera dick mimph giggot
Borrowdale lethera hevera devera dick bumfit giggot
Kirkby Stephen littera hovera dovera dick bumfit jiggot
Nidderdale layter overo covero dix bumfit jiggit
Westmorland saites haoves doaves dik buomfit -
Pollockshaws a heater a hover dover deckit - -
Kyle seetera over dover dik - -
Hawick zeeturi aover daover dek - -
Edinburgh - over dover din - -
Welsh saith wyth naw deg pymtheg ugain

The remaining numbers 11-19, where they occur, are formed by compounding, exactly as in Welsh e.g. yan a dick  'eleven' (W. un ar ddeg), taen a bumfit  'seventeen' (W. dwy ar bymtheg).

It can hardly be disputed that the numerals for 5, 10 and, to a lesser extent, 15 bear a remarkable resemblence to their Welsh counterparts and the conclusion that these are of Brythonic origin seems inescapable.  The Cumbrian forms pimp are identical to the early Welsh form of that number, and the others are evidently divergences from that.  The forms for 15, which apparently only occur in English scores (others include mimphit and bumper), are similar enough to suggest a relationship with pymtheg.  It is interesting to note that b- occurs in the compounded forms of the Welsh numerals (e.g. un ar bymtheg 'sixteen').

The remaining numerals are less convincingly of Brythonic origin and in most cases there is no reason to assume they are anything other than inventions. 

The numbers 1 and 2 are almost certainly of Germanic origin, probably from Old English.  Scots has ane 'one' with the side form yan for O.E. ān and in Cumbrian dialect the word yan remains in use for 'one' beside other dialectal forms from Germanic such as twa 'two' and fower 'four'.  The development of y- before -a- can be seen in other dialect words, such as yaker 'acre' < O.E. æcer or Old Norse akr, yakkeren 'acorn' < O.E. æcern or O.N. akarn and yar 'hare' < O.E. hara.  The forms for 2 are more closely aligned to O.E. twegen than to Welsh dau/dwy, though most have evidently been altered by assimilation.

The numbers for 3 and 4 have been affected by the desire to create rhyme and rhythm in the scores, but they nevertheless bear some resemblance to their Welsh counterpartsThe forms for 3 at least contain the sequence t—r and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the intervening /ð/ arose as a result of assimilation to the following.  In the case of peddero at least, there is a striking similarity with W. pedair though the medial consonant has been softened to a fricative.  The fact that the other cases have initial m- need not be too damning: they are at least closely related phonemes and the alternation between p and m can be seen in the Westmorland mimp and the Furness mimph

The numerals for 6, 7, 8 and 9 are irregular, confused and highly affected by assimilation.  We might be tempted to suggest that the sequence of forms in h..., s..., o... bears some resemblance to the Welsh chw..., s..., wy... but apart from that there is little in their favour as derivatives from Brythonic.  The Westmorland form saites does reflect W. saith to some extent, but since this diverges from the general pattern of forms like seetera, and since many scores have forms in s- for 'six' it would be unwise to place too much emphasis on what is probably a coincidental likeness.  Similarly, dowera is vaguely reminiscent of naw.  Overall it is probably safest to leave these numerals aside as uncertainties.  Whilst we might happily make vague suggestions of likeness with Brythonic numerals, we risk falling into the dangerous trap of forcing the evidence to fit the theory.  We have no reason to assume that all of these numerals are of Brythonic origin, even if some apparently are, and it would be a mistake to take a passing resemblence for evidence of a link and to twist the facts to make it fit.

The same might be said for the numerals for 20, which have been said to represent a form of ugain.  The argument rests on the fact that Welsh ugain derives from a Proto-Celtic *wikantī which ought to yield W. **gwygain according to regular sound laws.  The argument which follows is that Cumbric remained regular in this instance and developed the initial g-, before subsequently losing the -w- which caused it, and finally becoming /dʒ/ (cf. Cornish Jennifer vs. W. Gwynhwyfar).  But this hypothesis does not stand to reason, since it makes several unsubstantiated assumptions about the development of Cumbric.  Whilst it may well be that PC *wikantī- ought to yield gw-, it is a fact that it does not in any of the attested Brythonic tongues: Welsh ugain, Cornish ugens and Breton ugent all have u- in this case, which strongly suggests that the sound may already have changed in the common Brythonic period.  Even if gw- did develop here, the argument that Cumbric systematically changed gw- > g- is unfounded; it is extrapolated from a handful of cases before -o or which are not even definitive in their own right.  Further, the loss of -n- can hardly be accounted for without making recourse to ad hoc rules which further debase the argument.  The fact is that giggot, which occurs in only a handful of the specimen scores, is not a strong enough foundation on which to build the evidence for Cumbric; it is safer to leave it aside.

It is worth mentioning that the method of counting itself shows affinities to Welsh.  The vigesimal system is common to all Celtic languages, but the method of counting teens by compounding on ten (e.g. yan a dick 'eleven') and then on fifteen (e.g. yan a bumfit 'sixteen') is unique to Welsh.  Neither system has any counterpart in the Germanic languages of the British Isles. 


It is evident that the numerals for 5, 10 and 15 are of Brythonic origin and this alone is enough to highlight the possibility that the scores represent a Cumbric survival.  The numerals for 3 and 4 may derive from Brythonic originals, but their forms are too altered to provide any further useful information, and the remaining numerals have nothing to offer the discussion.

What is also apparent is the general similarity in forms, even when they are presumably inventions.  The numerals for 9, for example, are almost all based on the sequence d-v-r even though this has no parallels outside the scores.  The implication of this must be that the numerals, in fact, all originated from a single system which had already incorporated Brythonic, Germanic and invented elements before it diverged.  It is perhaps not too great a leap to suggest that this system may have spread from northern England into neighbouring areas since it is those forms which appear to be least altered and which also retain numbers beyond 10.  Further, if we believe that 4 is from the Cumbric cognate of pedair, the fact that most scores have an initial m- would seem to suggest that the systems spread after the time when Cumbric was a living language, since we have no reason to believe Cumbric itself ever changed p > m.  Indeed, the fact that the scores contain corresponding non-Brythonic elements is strong evidence that they were not transmitted before the demise of Cumbric as a spoken language, since we can hardly assume the Cumbrians would have adopted such a system when they had a perfectly functioning native one. 

There seems no real reason to doubt that these represent some kind of survival from Cumbric.  The idea that they were imported from Wales is neither particularly convincing, nor particularly necessary given the already established Brythonic links to the region in which they are most widespread.  It seems unlikely that they represent a region-wide Celtic substratum and it is more plausible to suggest that they developed into recognisable forms in one location and subsequently spread.  The date and nature of that spread is difficult to account for; it may have been as late as the 18th century when social changes were causing an unprecedented movement of the population and when the Union finally made the border regions safe.

In any case, the numerals do have something to offer the discussion of Cumbric, though it is important not to overstate their importance.  Because these systems have been handed down verbally and are clearly much altered, it is unlikely that they can give us much insight into the nature of Cumbric phonology.  It must also be borne in mind that those who wrote down these systems were not using a standardised orthography and may not have been native to the area from which they were collecting, so it would be unwise to place too much store on the details.