ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 46, July 1999


Rural dialects and surviving Britons

Rustic counting-systems suggest the Britons survived in large numbers in Saxon England, writes Tim Gay

Growing up in the marcher county of Cheshire and being the son of a Welsh father, I was always fascinated by the mysterious hill country I could see daily from my classroom windows. It was natural to find myself developing a strong affiliation for things Welsh, and difficult to endure the taunts of English fellow pupils who generally regarded Wales and the Welsh with little more than thinly disguised contempt.

History books of the time gave scant attention to minority interests like mine, concentrating as they did on subjects such as the Romans whose remarkable prowess in military and technological matters was offered as a model of superior humanity. The military success of the Anglo-Saxons too, supposedly sweeping across the country and driving into the Western hills those Welsh they had not slaughtered, was similarly confused with moral virtue.

I was never convinced of either the `might is right' approach of English history books, nor of their factual accuracy. I believed that whole populations could not have been so thoroughly massacred, uprooted or written out of history. As time has gone on, my scepticism has been increasingly vindicated.

Over recent years a range of evidence - archaeological, genetic and linguistic - has been use by historians to throw doubt on the traditional view that the native Britons or Welsh were largely driven out of England (see, for example, BA, April 1997). I have been most impressed, however, by a less well-known strand of evidence that supports the theory of continuing `Welsh' presence throughout Britain - that of rural dialects.

A few years ago I came across a book entitled Shepherding Tools and Customs (Arthur Ingram, Shire, 1977). This little book listed various examples of sheep-counting systems from all over the British Isles which survived until the early decades of this century. There were examples from as far afield as Wiltshire, Cumbria and the Scottish Lowlands. They all compared very closely to 18th century Cornish and modern Welsh.

As a consequence of my discovery I set about collecting other evidence of counting systems and found an article from The Countryman magazine of October 1939 written by James Walton. He had collected several examples of counting systems from the Yorkshire dales and the Lake District. Although each dale had its own distinct form, the underlying system was, like the other counting systems, clearly related to Welsh.

Further research then drew my attention to the work of David Thomas OBE, a former school inspector in Wales. Thomas had collected detailed systems from Yorkshire, Durham, Roxburgh and Essex. He too had been fascinated by these ancient counting systems as evidence of the survival of a brythonic population probably subjugated, but used as a labour force, by the Saxon overlords. He published his research in his book Animal Call Words (Spurrell) in 1939.

Remembering the long time scale (nearly two hundred years) of the Saxon immigration, it would seem plausible that the earliest arrivals would join the indigenous British in resisting further incursions. Pressure from the Irish in the West and the later attacks of the Vikings may have formed many unlikely alliances as people struggled to defend themselves against the latest raiders.

The survival of `Welsh' elements in English place-names has been recognised now for years, suggesting (among other things) continuation of Welsh settlement. The survival of Welsh in English country dialects is far less well-known. Sadly, in the latter part of this century every one of the counting systems is thought to have finally died out.

Tim Gay teaches English at the Open University and has a special interest in linguistics

Wilts Scots Lakes Dales Welsh
1 Ain Yan Aina Yain Un
2 Tain Tyan Peina Tain Dan
3 Tethera Tethera Para Eddero Tri
4 Methera Methera Peddera Peddero Pedwar
5 Mimp Pimp Pimp Pitts Pump
6 Ayta Sethera Ithy Tayter Chwech
7 Slayta Lethera Mithy Later Saith
8 Laura Hovera Owera Overro Wyth
9 Dora Dovera Lowera Coverro Nan
10 Dik Dik Dig Dix Deg
11 Ain-a-dik Yanadik Ain-a-dig Yain-dix Un ar ddeg
12 Tain-a-dik Tyanadik Pein-a-dig Tain-dix Deuddeg
13 Tethera-dik Tetheradik Par-a-dig Eddero-dix Tri ar ddeg
14 Methera-dik Metheradik Pedder-a-dig Peddero-dix Pedwar ar ddeg
15 Mit Bumfitt Bumfit Bumfitt Pymtheg
16 Ain-a-mit Yanabumfitt Aina-a-bumfit Yain-o-bumfitt Un ar bymtheg
17 Tain-a-mit Tyanabumfitt Pein-a-bumfit Tain-o-bumfitt Dau ar bymtheg
18 Tehtera-mit Tetherabumfitt Par-a-bumfit Eddero-bumfitt Deunau
19 Gethera-mit Metherabumfitt Pedder-a-bumfit Peddero-bumfitt Pedwar ar bymtheg
20 Ghet Giggot Giggy Jiggit Ugain

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