Austronesian Counting

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What do Welshmen have to do with Polynesians?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 8:22 am

 

It’s very difficult to convince Austronesian linguists that An numbers didn’t actually spring, fully-formed, as miraculously decimal systems in proto-Austronesian, or proto-Oceanic, at the latest, 3500 years ago. (It was just as difficult to convince Indo-Europeanists that this didn’t happen, either, but at least they’re coming round, now).

After all, if you collect large sets of cognate words from daughter languages, and then reconstruct them, using the phonetic rules you’ve already found by reconstructing other words, and end up with a very obvious decimal set, from 1-10, you make the most obvious deduction; it must always have been that way. Well, it wasn’t.

 

Vigesimal numbering, at least in the basic stages, occurred worldwide, simply because 20 is the logical end-point to counting first your fingers, and then your toes. At 20, you’ve got a higher unit, so you can memorise it somehow, and start again to count up to 20 again. Now you’ve got two higher units. Remember them, and then do it all over again. At the end, you will have x higher units, and an exact number left over.

At each count of twenty, you simply score a stick, or run your hand down your shepherd’s crook to another readymade score.

Right up to the 20th century, shepherds around England were using a ‘shepherd’s score’ to count their flocks. The system was adapted from the old Briton, or Brythonic number system, which itself evolved into separate languages (Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton) when the British were split up and forced west by the rude Anglo-Saxons in the 6thC AD.

 

Here’s an example of just one of these shepherds’ systems, compared with the old Welsh vigesimal system, that also persevered until the 20thC

 

Old Shepherds’ Score

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Lincolnshire

yan

tan

tethera

pethera

pimp

sethera

lethera

hovera

covera

dik

Welsh

un

dau, dwy (fem)

tri,tair (fem)

pedwar, pedair (fem)

pump

chwech

saith

wyth

naw

deg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Lincolnshire

yan-a-dik

tan-a-dik

tethera-dik

pethera-dik

bumfit

yan-a-bumfit

tan-a-bumfit

tethera-bumfit

pethera-bumfit

figgot

Welsh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

un ar ddeg

deuddeg

tair ar ddeg

pedair ar ddeg

pymtheg

un ar bymtheg

dwy ar bymtheg

deunaw

pedair ar bymtheg

ugain

 

So these (almost certainly illiterate) shepherds adopted a counting system from a different language (or kept it, because they were lower-status Brythons left behind) in an interesting way. They didn’t even consider applying the logic inherent in the original system, but used made-up, but memorable, rhyming nonsense words instead.

Also, young mothers started using these rhyming words as lullabies. Hence ‘counting sheep’ to go to sleep. And when they grew older, they used the same tally words to count stitches in knitting. And children still use them in counting out games.

 

But there’s more of interest in the Welsh counting system, and some details that might reveal its real roots.

The counts through from 20 to 100 are very practically based on 20s – vigesimal. From 20 to 40 you go up again to 10 – deg ar hugain- and on, to deugain (2 ugains). But, at 50, the new word is hanner cant (half hundred). So now you’ve got three lots of higher units – 20s, 50s and 100s. With those higher units, you can go a long way; you could count yourself to sleep for a fortnight.

 

Old Welsh vigesimal system

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

deg

ugain

deg ar hugain

deugain

hanner cant

trigain

deg a thrigain

pedwar ugain

deg a phedwar ugain

cant (cannoedd)

 

But there are a few other subtle clues in the Welsh counting system to the real history of Celtic systems:.

          at 15, the count starts again 15+1, 15+2, up to 20. This isn’t unusual; many languages reach the end of counting the first lot of toes, and then start out again with the second lot, ending up with ‘whole man’. What is unusual here is that the first lot of numbers (up to 10) isn’t applied to counting the teens.

         but then Welsh counting also does something else a bit strange. 18 is deunaw, (two nines) for some strange reason.

         In Breton, a closely related language (fleeing Brythons doing the very opposite of Dunkirk) 18 is tri w’ech (three sixes).

Why? These may be fossils of an archaic system of counting in threes, not fives.

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