Posted by: Phil Anderson | March 16, 2014

Irish Influence

St. Patrick’s Day is this week. I don’t have any traceable Irish ancestry and I don’t drink, so it’s generally one of the more inauspicious holidays for me. However, when you need a topic for a blog post, it can come from anywhere…

The novel I’m currently working on is set in the fictional kingdom of Theran. I’m trying to make it a diverse and believable place, so I look for ideas and inspiration from a wide variety of sources. The following is a bit of Theran culture that developed from a blog post by linguist Stan Carey. (He’s Irish, so that’s where I made my connection.)

In the herding district of Theran, the shepherds and goatherds tend to be uneducated. That’s not to say they are universally stupid or unintelligent, but formal education is not a high priority and many cannot read or count beyond twenty. But how does one tend a herd of sheep without being able to count or do simple math? Here’s their method:

As the sheep leave their pen in the morning, on their way to a distant field for a leisurely day of grazing, the shepherd will sing or recite a little chant, with a word for each animal.

Yahn, tahn, methera, tethera, pip

Sethera, leathera, hovera, dovera, dik

yahndik, tahndik, metheradik, tetheradik, bumfitt

Yanabumfitt, tanabumfitt, metherabumfitt, tetherabumfitt, rock

After reaching rock (twenty) the herder will pick up a stone or small rock and put it in his pocket, then start over with yahn. In this way, if a herder had seventy-five sheep, he should finish chanting at three rocks and bumfitt without ever knowing the actual number of sheep.

Later in the day, perhaps at lunchtime, he looks over his herd and chants the counting rhyme again. Instead of picking up new rocks, he’ll move them from one pocket to another, and if he ends at three rocks and bumfitt he can be confident that all his sheep are there, still without knowing exactly how many there are.

When the herd returns home at night, he will know that none of his animals have been lost if he chants as they enter the pen and he ends at three rocks and bumfitt. He has gone an entire day, skillfully managing and protecting a large herd of sheep, despite the fact that he can’t count past twenty.

I don’t know if I’ll ever specifically describe this process in a novel, but just having it in mind helps keep one of my uneducated but undeniably clever main characters from becoming a stereotypical country bumpkin.

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