Thursday, September 22, 2016

Lincolnshire shepherds count their sheep

Lincolnshire shepherds count their sheep
Preferably to be read in a Lincolnshire accent

When sheep were counted by the head ˗
the count kept in the shepherd’s head ˗
and the carrying of an abacus was abjured,
and the battery-charged electronic calculator was
still a twinkle in its creator’s eye, then
shepherds in Lincolnshire county counted
not in decimal, but vigesimally –
taking in fingers, thumbs and, it’s supposed, toes,
and producing the following dial-up-rhyme
to keep track of their woolly subjects crowns:

Yan tan tethera pethera pimp;
sethera lethera hovera covera dik;
yan-a-dik tan-a-dik
tethera-dik
pethera-dik
bumfit;
yan-a-bumfit
tan-a-bumfit
tethera-bumfit
pethera-bumfit
figgot.

Some words within the groups of five gained
easy traction - tethera, pethera - while
sethera, lethera, hovera, covera made only a
minor mark. And sad to say, pimp and figgot,
words surely on a par for originality with
bumfit and dik, got little room to breathe.

What would the English-speaking world give to
count thus: one, two, three, four,
pimp,
or sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,
figgot.
The humdrum of twenty stands abashed before
figgot, while five is a
simpleton fricative, cousin to
fünf, or fimf, or fimm,
having none of the former luxury of
pimp (now impoverished, playing a sleazy role).

Let us stand with the sheep and the
shepherds, baring our fingers and toes in the
cold, counting the dag-marked rain-soaked
fleeces, noting each vigesimal group with a
pebble, a notch on our crook, or a mark in the
mud-dank ground, with language that’s old, but proven:

Yan tan tethera pethera pimp;
sethera lethera hovera covera dik;
yan-a-dik tan-a-dik
tethera-dik
pethera-dik
bumfit;
yan-a-bumfit
tan-a-bumfit
tethera-bumfit
pethera-bumfit
figgot.

Coda:
Some women knitting, or counting their
stitches, followed the shepherds’ enumerations,
clicking their needles or twisting their wool,
sewing up jerkin sleeves, braiding men’s britches,
fashioning the gear for their rustic men’s bags of bones,
sewing while stirring hot broths in their iron pots ˗
let us join with the throng of them spread through the land,
wizened or comely or middle-aged matrons, all counting:

Yan tan tethera pethera pimp;
sethera lethera hovera covera dik;
yan-a-dik tan-a-dik
tethera-dik
pethera-dik
bumfit;
yan-a-bumfit
tan-a-bumfit
tethera-bumfit
pethera-bumfit

figgot.
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