The origins of counting

The early Britons’ survival relied on their livestock. Shared pastures meant you had to know how many you put in (in order to take back out) and taxes were later applied per head of stock. A stock count was the first action performed in the morning and the last at night.

Stock counting systems derived from Brythonic/Celtic languages and practices though the actual words have been greatly corrupted by time. But for ease of purpose (and much like all oral traditions of the time) rhyme and metre were key to remembering the sequence. Thus, the counting system could be used for everything from stock counting to keeping track of stitching when knitting yarn.

Every region had its own rhyming words for the numbers up to twenty and there is a reasonably consistent rhyming pattern across the twenty numbers.

The Borrowdale (Cumberland) dialect is a good example of the Yan Tan Tether counting and rhyming system and has served the shepherds of the lake valleys for two millennia:

Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Dovera, Dick, Yan a dick, Tyan a dick, Tethera dick, Methera dick, Bumfit, Yan a bumfit, Tyan a bumfit, Tethera bumfit, Methera bumfit, Giggot

Even now, people count aloud under their breath when tallying up numbers. In modern English we still rely on alliterated pairs in lieu of rhyme – two/three, four/five, six/seven — and like Yan Tan Tether we use ‘ten and’ system for the higher numbers: three-and-ten, four and ten, five and ten (thirteen, fourteen, fifteen). (in Yan Tan its ‘ten and one’ ‘ten and two’ ten and three’ ‘ten and four’ ‘fifteen’ ‘fifteen-and-one, fifteen-and-two etc)


Here’s the very early origins of our (English) counting system (courtesy of Wikipedia). Not much in common, but then again Celtic languages were a mile from the Germanic language that later became English (check out this great language map)

Yan Tan Tethera Brythonic Counting System

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.


Why it doesn’t pay to be a 29 day month

The Gregorian calendar (‘Western’ calendar or ‘Christian’ calendar) that most of us know so well is strictly a solar calendar — meaning it generally disregards what the moon is doing and focusses more on the patterns of the sun (which the Earth fully rotates around in 365 days and nearly six hours). That six hours causes a 24 day outage over a century. The Gregorian calendar copes with that by having irregular (28, 30 or 31) which don’t neatly align with the moon, a short 28 day month assigned to February and a ‘leap day’ (Feb 29) assigned once every four years to drag things back inline with the sun across a century.

Celtic timekeeping on the other hand (based on knowledge gleaned from the Coligny calendar unearthed in Gaul) was luni-solar which meant the Celts observed the patterns of the moon for (12) months and the sun for their years and ‘ages’ (and ‘age’ was half of our ‘decade’). The two crept out of synch after a while and so the Celts managed it with the neat inclusion of leap (interclary) months every 2.5 ‘years’. The Celtic calendar looks a lot like the ancient Hebrew calendar structurally and they share very similar patterns of 29 and 30 day months as well as the habit of adding the (interclary) month now and again to keep the solar calendar aligned. But whereas the dualistic Celts simply added their interclary months at the start and middle of their 60 month ‘age’ cycle (dividing each age into two halves) the Hebrews applied the more random habit of adding 7 interclary months across a 19 year period. Probably more mathematically accurate but messy and never the same twice.

Like the Hebrews (who considered 30 day months as ‘full’ and 29 day months as ‘deficient’), or the Greeks (30 = ‘full’ and 29 = ‘hollow’), or the Babylonians (30 = full’ 29 = ‘defective’), the Celts referred to the 30 day lunations as ‘matos’ (lucky) and those of 29 days as ‘unlucky’ (anmatos).

Either way the poor old 29 day month is generally maligned.






Language Tree

Brilliantly conceived language tree showing how language evolved. Look at Welsh tucked away there on their own tiny branch so far from English.


The Language Tree

A Year and a Day

Welsh literature is full of very casually used examples of time keeping termed ‘a year and a day’. As in a curse that must be borne for a year and a day after which it expires or is lifted. Or a goddess figure who rides for a year and a day or a warrior who is called to battle a year and a day from some earlier dispute. But where does the phrase come from?

Haitian voodoo tradition has the souls of the recently departed slip into rivers and streams and stay there for a year and a day before being reborn as the spirits of trees, mountains or caves.

New initiates into the Wiccan faith (and, reputedly, into Druidism long before it) had to study for a year and a day before being accepted as a neophyte to study further.

Some feudal societies stet a year and a day as the period after which an indentured servant (serf) could be freed if he remained away from his bonded lands for that long.

It appears that Celtic betrothals were also conducted for a year and a day. Most would be negotiated at Lugnasadh, the couple would be officially betrothed until the following Lugnasadh and the day later they would be deemed married (or the betrothal cancelled if it wasn’t going well).

It is only comparatively recently that Britain lifted the requirement for a death to happen within a year and a day of a murder attempt for it to actually be called murder. In New Zealand, that is still technically the law. If someone dies as a result of a murderous act but it takes them more than a year to do it, the person cannot be charged with the murder. Poisoners take note.

A year and a day is also the minimum incarceration period in some countries to distinguish a misdemeanour from a felony. And, in the US, intents to sue need to be lodged within a year and a day of the inciting incident.

But what is this year and a day? How has it arisen?

Some scholars observe that pre-Christian Celts may have had thirteen months in a year (each named for trees) of 28 days each. 28 x 13 is 364 and, thus, a leap day needed to be added at the end (or start) of every year to keep the solar calendar aligned. The Celtic year ran from the New Year (Dec 24) until the following Dec 22 (winter solstice). December 23rd was not technically part of the year and was reputedly a day of special magic. And so when the people of that time were timekeeping across years, some say they would refer to ‘a year and a day’ to mean what we would consider now a year (365 days) or a base annual unit.



Just how proficient were warriors with bows/arrows in the Dark Ages?


For anyone who cringed watching Kevin Costner play Robin Hood…rejoice.

This video is equal parts fascinating and hilarious. Here is a guy—not terribly fit, not terribly athletic, not at all cool—who has learned to use a bow and arrow like an absolute master. He shows us just how proficient bow users could have been back in the (dark) day. When their lives depended on it.

And, crucially, he demonstrates just why the back-slung quiver was a really cruddy idea and how a bow-and-arrow could be as effective as a revolver.

But…be kind. Lars has clearly spent a LOT of time alone perfecting his craft.

y Ddraig Map

The stories of y Ddraig are based on real characters of history, myth or literature and, thus, some places in the stories are real. Caer Gai (known as Caer Gynyr in ‘Sacrifice’ but Caer Gai by ‘Ascension’) did exist on the banks of Lake Bala in Northern Wales. Melangell’s valley is still as beautiful and peaceful as ever it was. All of those places have a real and important part in the original tales of Melangell and Cai. Eryri (Snowdonia) is a phenomenal and mystery-drenched highlands in the north of Wales, Mathraval was a real land and power centre in the 5th and 6th Century, and Crug Eryr was an actual stronghold of the era. I have used those locations in the weaving of ‘Sacrifice’.

Here’s a map to keep it all straight.




Map – Cymry 548 AD

The y Ddraig series is set in sixth century Cymry (modern day Cymru or Wales), the borders of which shifted with the politics of the day. After the Romans but before the Angles & Saxons had made much headway beyond the eastern coast of Brython, the original people of Brython (the Brythoniad) knew themselves as the Cymry. There was no Wales, or Scotland or England. There was only Cymry and the Picts and Scoti (Northmen) beyond the Roman wall.

Impression of how Cymry dominated the land of Brython in the 6th century.

Welsh language or Alphabet soup?

Modern Welsh is descended directly from Brythonic Celtic. The language and all its changes settled into more or less its current form by 14th Century (‘middle’ Welsh) mostly forming in the 8th century (‘old’ Welsh) and anything before it is (‘Ancient’ Welsh) or simply ‘Brythonic’.

a, b, c, ch, d, dd, e, f, ff, g, ng, h, i, l, ll, m, n, o, p, ph, r, rh, s, t, th, u, w, y

The Welsh alphabet has 28 written letters (missing the English J, K, Q, V, X and Z but supplementing with ch, dd, ff, ng, ll, ph, rh and th). Reading Welsh becomes a whole lot less intimidating when you realise that W and Y are used as extra vowels (‘oo’ and ‘uh/ee’ respectively) and speaking it becomes easier if you learn a few simple consonant sounds.

  • Ch – like in the Scots ‘loch’
  • Dd – a hard ‘th’ sound as in ‘lithe’
  • F – sounded as a ‘v’
  • Ff – sounded as an English ‘eff’
  • Ng – as in english
  • Ll – sounded as a gutteral ‘cl’ or ‘thl’
  • Ph – a ‘fff’ sound
  • Rh – In Welsh, these are reversed when pronounced. Eg: Lord Rhosen is pronounced Lord Hrosen.
  • Th – a soft th [as distinct from the hard ‘th’ sound of dd

Terrifyingly, the decision to drop K from the Welsh alphabet appears to have been a practical business decision made in the 16th century when the printers of the New Testament in Welsh didn’t have enough ‘K’s to meet the text’s needs. They were replaced with Cs in a very unpopular move and the habit stuck. Just goes to show how easy it is to bastardise language.

With dynamic politics comes dynamic language

After the Romans abandoned Brython at the end of the 4th century, broad scale warring commenced as the lands south of Hadrian’s Wall tried to sort their own political structure out.

Between AD400 and AD 700, the Brythonic language mutated significantly as the language of the Ancient Romano-Britons merged with the incoming Germanic languages of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. It would shift again when the Vikings came, and then again during the Norman invasion another two centuries later.

But it means that the time I have chosen to set ‘y Ddraig’ was one of the most lingually dynamic times in the history of English language.

Some words we retain from their Celtic origins: bog, slogan, galore, whiskey, gob, glen, bard, and clan. The Celts also contributed the future tense ‘going to’ (as in ‘I’m going to harvest the field’) which is subtly different to the immediacy of the Anglo Saxon ‘will’ (‘I will harvest the field’).

Hard not to wonder if we can blame the early Britons for the round ‘tuit’ (as in ‘I’m going to get around to it’). A language shift that saw any number of things being postponed until tomorrow may not have done us any favours.