Across a wide area of northern England and southern Scotland, a curious linguistic feature has been regularly reported in the shape of an unusual method of counting—apparently based on twenty, reputedly used extensively by shepherds, and bearing a distinct similarity to Welsh and other Celtic languages. Individual words vary considerably from place to place, but overall the pattern is remarkably similar:(From the Lake District, N&Q 180 (1941), 459–60)
(From the Lake District, N&Q 180 (1941), 459–60)
In England, the numerals have been collected in the counties of Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, Northumberland, and Lincolnshire (see Barry for an extensive list of examples). Attention was drawn to these numerals by antiquarians and dialect collectors in the later 19th century, and it has been repeatedly asserted since that time (e.g. by Gay) that they represent a survival of the pre-Anglo-Saxon population of the areas in which they have been collected, and that they are important proof of the theory that pockets of Celtic peoples not only survived in certain areas but kept their own language and traditions well into the Anglo-Saxon era. Unfortunately, the shepherds' score does not support such a hypothesis, on at least two important counts. Linguists (e.g. Faull) have pointed out that a careful study of the numerals indicates an importation after the Saxon settlements. Secondly, the geographical spread of the numerals covers areas which are known to have been settled early and completely by Anglo-Saxons. It is also suspicious that the first known mention of these numerals in Britain is as late as 1745, although a reference to them in the USA, dating from 1717, argues for their earlier existence here. If survival from ancient times is discounted, and later importation surmised, it begs the question of from where, how, and when, and there is, as yet, no definitive answer. For a number of reasons, Barry thinks it unlikely that the numerals were imported to England from Scotland (indeed, he suggests it may have been the other way round), which leaves Wales as the most likely source, in post-medieval times. Drovers bringing sheep to English markets are possible carriers, as are Welsh miners brought to England by mine-owners, but this remains speculation. Barry even casts doubt on the numerals' use, as he failed to gather any firsthand information about sheep-counting. Many of his informants had been told the numbers were for counting sheep, but none had actually used them in that way, while some used the score in knitting, some as a counting-out rhyme, and others as a nursery rhyme. There is no doubt that the numerals are traditional and are prized as a genuine part of local dialect (see, for example, correspondence in The Dalesman, 1982–3) but their origin is neither as simple, nor as antique as is often supposed.
Michael Barry, Folk Life 7 (1969), 75–91;Margaret L. Faull, Local Historian 15:1 (1982), 21–3;Tim Gay, Local Historian 14:5 (1981), 282–3.