“Indian Counting” – Een, teen, tether, fether, fip!

OK, caveat here: it’s may not be Native American counting, but that’s how it was presented to me by my math teacher (Mr. Sommerville, go ndéanai Dia trócaire air) in high school, around 1967. On the other hand, maybe it is.

The entire schema as he presented it was:

Een, teen, tether, fether, fip,
Satra, latra, co, tethery, dick,
Eendick, teendick, tetherdick, fetherdick, bump,
Eenbump, teenbump, tetherbump, fetherbump, didick!

Being testosterone-soaked boys, everyone laughed at hearing the word “dick” used as a number, and then life went on. I had heard it once, and remembered fragments of it forever.

Then came the Internet, where almost everything arcane has a tendency to show up if you wait long enough. I would search occasionally, and over time, bits and pieces appeared; now there is a full-blown Wikipedia article entitled “Yan tan tethera,” and the real story becomes quite complicated.

Over at Wovember Words, the matter is treated thusly (the whole page is worth a read):

The only reference we could find anywhere confirming connections between the counting words of Native Americans with those used in the North of England is in a musical written in 1957, called The Music Man. There is a scene in this play where the wife of the Mayor exclaims “I will now count to twenty in the Indian tongue! Een teen tuther featherfip!” Is this line in the play responsible for the idea that Native American peoples were using these old counting words with their Gaelic origins, or does it reflect that through the dark mechanisms of Imperialism the counting words were imposed onto Native American culture by the time the play was written?

Lincolnshire Shepherds counted:
Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pinp,
Sethera, lethera, hovera, covera, di,
Yen-a-dik, tan-a-dick, tethera-dik, pethera-dik, bumfit,
Yan-a-bumfit, tan-a-bumfit, tuthera-bumfit, pethera-bumfit, figgit.

At the same time, around 1890, Native Americans were also using:
Een, teen, thuther, futher, fipps,
Suther, luther, uther, duther, dix,
Een-dix, teen-dix, tuther-dix, futher-dix, bumpit,
Anny-bumpit, tanny-bumpit, tuther-bumpit, futher-bumpit, giggit, Anny-gigit.

If you listen to the soundtrack of the movie version of “The Music Man” carefully, there’s a bit more:

Eulalie begins: Een teen tuther feather fip!
The chorus chants: Sakey, Lakey, Corey Ippy Gip (This may not be 100% accurate as these words do not appear in the screenplay)
Eulalie continues: Eendik Teendik Tetherdik Fethertik … (she is interrupted by a firecracker)

So we can see that it’s entirely possible that these counters, very similar to the Brythonic counting systems – too close to be coincidental – may have been transmitted very early by some oral channel to Native Americans, and that by folklore tradition a knowledge of these counters worked their way down cultural pathways to be included in the play and movie.

Language and its history are curious things, with enough puzzles and questions for lifetimes of study – even the whimsical bits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

One response to ““Indian Counting” – Een, teen, tether, fether, fip!

  1. I can’t say I’ve mastered English very well, let alone any other language. But I do find it’s development fascinating. This is an interesting side trip, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s