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Eric Shackle Writes: Counting Sheep Will Help You Sleep

Eric Shackle highlights old-style ways of counting that make one, two, three, four five sound tame.

For centuries people have lulled themselves to sleep by counting imaginary sheep. They may appear in a flock, or jumping through a hedge or fence.

You can count 1,2,3 and so on, but there are plenty of other ways to count them.

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.

After we wrote a piece on this subject six years ago, David Halperin, from Urim, Israel, told us in an email that we should read a book called Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid.

"The book lists different ways of counting to ten," he said. "Reid writes, 'If you get tired of counting one, two, three, make up your own numbers, as shepherds used to do when they had to count sheep day in, day out. You can try using these sets of words instead of numbers, when you have to count to ten.'

"There are 57 pages of this delightful nonsense, with equally delightful illustrations. My wife and I love it."

David told us "I have been a member of Kibbutz Urim for the past 50 years, and so have had many -- and varied -- jobs over the decades: lathe operator, physics and mathematics teacher, factory worker, bookkeeper... But for the last few of them I was a musicologist at Tel-Aviv University until my retirement eight years ago."

In the book Ounce, Dice, Trice, now sadly out of print, Alastair Reid, a Scottish-born author, poet and translator, cites these witty ways of counting to 10:
Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.
Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.

Archery, butchery, treachery, taproom, tomb, sermon, cinnamon, apron, nunnery, density.

Acreage, brokerage, cribbage, carthage, cage, sink, sentiment, ointment, nutmeg, doom.

He also suggests ways of naming the fingers, such as Tommy Thumbkins, Ettie Wilkson, Long Lauder (a distant relative of today's Laura Norder?), Davy Gravy, and Little Quee.

He suggests that times of day should include daypeep, dimity, dewfall and owlcry.

"And if someone tells you something you don't believe, look at him steadily and say FIRKYDOODLE, FUDGE, or QUOZ."

The Random Pseudodictionary defines Firkytoodle: (n) Foreplay. Not my original word, but a wonderful word to say. Try it. Firkytoodle. Probably got it from Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary. Example: As in a song lyric: Momma don't 'low no firkytoodlin' 'round here.

The Countryside Museum: http://www.fellpony.f9.co.uk/country/c_main.htm

Video, Counting Sheep: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUjDvRJ_rzo


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