Celtic counting

And say a flock of (say) 43 sheep would result in two scores and three fingers – two score and three.When you consider the evolution of counting, it seems obvious that even the earliest societies could have conceived at least of the number twenty because that is how many fingers and toes they had. Thus, the much later but still ancient Celts (and therefore the early Britons) as well as the Maya and Aztecs had words for numbers up to twenty but it would be a long time before numbers like thirty, forty, fifty (and their in-betweens) were developed and used commonly.

In the earliest literature phrases exist for numbers below 20 but numbers above are referred to in terms of ‘X score and X’ (think of Lincoln’s ‘four score and seven years ago…’).

Thus a score = twenty. And a flock of 43 sheep would result in two scores and three fingers – ‘two score and three’ which is how they thought of numbers as naturally and clearly as we think of 43 today.

The twenty-based system is called ‘vigesimal’ in the way our ten-based system is called ‘decimal’.

The early Britons literally ‘scored’ the earth (or a tree trunk or even their skin in emergencies) each time they reached twenty and then started over. Some had pre-scored marks on their crook (herding stick) and simply moved their hand down one mark per twenty. I imagine the earliest opened each finger until they reached ten and then closed them again for the next ten, then drew their score before starting over on the next lot of finger opens/closes.

Later, counting ‘poems’ were formed which did away with the finger-counting but helped farmers keep track and these eventually evolved into the numbering systems we recognise today.