Peig Sayers Speaks.

Via Alex Foreman’s Facebook post, a YouTube clip (less than a minute long) of native Irish speaker Peig Sayers speaking English. Alex says:

This puts into perspective what I really mean when I tell people that Indian English (which now does have full native speakers) is just as much a part of English as Irish or Welsh English, and is similar to them in having substrate effects from other languages.

This is a recording of Peig Sayers speaking somewhat broken English. Sayers was not only a native Irish speaker but part of a generation which still contained Irish speakers who spoke English imperfectly (believe it or not the last documented monolingual Irish-speaker who spoke no English only died in 1998.)

You can tell that much from her syntax. But listen to her accent. It is not native Hiberno-English phonology of any kind, but it has enough in common with heavily Irish-influenced varieties of Hiberno-English that, if I heard somebody speaking with this *accent* today using native-like syntax, I doubt I would take them for a non-native English speaker. English spoken with a heavy non-native accent by an Irish speaker can still, pronunciation-wise, fall within my sense of “what English-speakers can sound like”.

There may come a time in a few centuries where a lot of the distinctive features of Indian English have been naturalized in the same way, so that phonological transfer from Indian languages (which now strikes Americans or Britons as signs of imperfect English learning) sounds to them like nothing more than deep regionalism.

It’s a wonderful sound, and I wish the clip lasted longer.


  1. I realised I had never heard a recording of Peig speaking Irish. Here she recounts (recites rather) one of her stories. It seems recordings made 1946–52 were published in 2007 and 2020.

    My father in the 1950s struggled to understand the English of a Connemara man who was IIRC in his 30s or 40s. After dad switched to Irish the man mentioned that he had worked as a navvy around Birmingham for five years and never needed to learn English as the whole crew was from Connemara.

  2. Lovely, thanks — makes me want to take up Irish again. And I love the navvy story.

  3. mollymooly, thank you for that beautiful story!

  4. John Cowan says

    There may come a time in a few centuries where a lot of the distinctive features of Indian English have been naturalized in the same way

    I think that’s already true. During my current job search I’ve been hearing lots of different varieties of L2 Indian English with varying degrees of intelligibility from various recruiters. It seems clear, however, that most of it is learned from other speakers of L2 Indian English, so that it lacks only actual L1-ness to become another ordinary variety of English like Irish English.

    nothing more than deep regionalism

    That too is already the case, at least to my ear. What’s supposed to be the difference between Wasn’t it herself told me? and What is your good name?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    L2 English-speakers from India may of course have quite a wide range of L1’s, which themselves vary in phonology and syntax. Which you would think could lead to lots of variation in spoken L2 IndEng, even if written IndEng has its own fairly uniform standard. But since part of the point of learning English (absent emigration) is to speak to other Indians who do not know your L1, what sort of convergence does that dynamic promote in spoken IndEng?

  6. only tangentially related (via “irish english with substrates”), but one of the englishes i’ve heard whose sound i most enjoyed was belfast irish english spoken by a romanian-cradle-tongue hungarian musicologist who’d worked construction there (belfast) for some years. i cannot describe it at all, but it was both beautifully unique and unmistakably belfast.

  7. January First-of-May says

    believe it or not the last documented monolingual Irish-speaker who spoke no English only died in 1998

    I personally (mildly) disbelieve it in the opposite direction: I’d have guessed there were a few still alive.

    I wonder if there are any surviving documented monolingual Welsh speakers.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    I cannot speak for Indians, but I would say the situation re variation in Ireland is more a case of regional mesolects and non-regional sociolects (I would include traveler’s speech, as well as D4, Trinity etc., there). So people from Village speak to one another in dialect and to strangers in regional mesolect.

  9. I presume the 1998 monoglot is Seán Ó hEinirí, of whom Wikipedia says: “Ó hEinirí may have been the last monolingual speaker of the Irish language.[citation needed]”

    I doubt if he knew absolutely no English, and probably he was outlived by a few elders with just as little English but without his renown as a seanchaí.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    @mollymooly, not sure how these definitions are expected to work, but as I understand it Ireland is full of adults who were compelled by government policy to take X years of Irish in school whether they wanted to or not and no doubt have retained knowledge of *some* Irish lexemes and phrases etc., but who function in adulthood as monolingual Anglophones for all practical purposes and do not self-identify as bilingual. Seems to me like an L1 Irish-speaker who knows no more English than folks like that know Irish could likewise be fairly characterized as monolingual — even if exposed to English in school one could always claim “they tried to make me bilingual, but it didn’t really take.” Obviously in more recent generations you have to live a fairly specialized/circumscribed life within Ireland to avoid stumbling almost inadvertently into greater English fluency. I take it this fellow didn’t travel very much outside his home village except when out on the sea fishing.

  11. Apparently the name Ó hEinirí is not (as I naively assumed) O’Henry but the Ó variant of McEnery: “Anglicized form of Irish Mac Innéirghe (‘son of Innéirghe’), a personal name apparently derived from éirghe (‘rising, rise’).”

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if there are any surviving documented monolingual Welsh speakers.

    My great aunt (sadly not now surviving) learnt English as a teenager and forgot it all again in her old age. She never did learn to spell it.

    I don’t know any monoglot Welsh speakers now, but you do still come across a few very old people who are much more fluent in Welsh than English.

    On difficult-to-follow English: for about a month after I first arrived in Ghana I had difficulty understanding what people were saying to me in English (after that, I could understand all the words, but I often didn’t understand just why people had actually said them.)

    There’s a definite substrate effect from Akan; northern Ghanaians like to mock southern Ghanaians’ difficulty with the word “problem” (Akan has no l/r contrast.)

  13. I understand the appeal in the search for monolinguals, but it gets to be a bit artificial. Do we mourn the passing of the last monolingual once they learned how to say Hello/Goodbye/Thanks/I-don’t-speak-English?

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Found in a 21st-century Canadian grad-student thesis:

    “As late as 1976-1977, a few Gaelic monolinguals could still be found in rural Cape
    Breton. These monolinguals were comprised of a handful of women in their 80s and 90s
    (MacKinnon, 1985). Edwards (1991) conducted a study of three groups of Gaelic
    speakers and students of Gaelic from various parts of the province of Nova Scotia. He
    found that the most capable Gaelic speakers were those who were the oldest, held semiskilled jobs, and were the least educated. There was a complete absence of Gaelic
    monolinguals in Edward’s (1991) study which suggests that those still alive at the time of
    MacKinnon’s study were by then deceased.”

    As I may have mentioned, one of my great-great-grandmothers was in her earlier childhood in Cape Breton (she was born 1836 or ’37) a monolingual Gaelic speaker, but she was exposed to English once she started school* and eventually moved out of the community and married a dude from Ontario who was presumably a monolingual Anglophone. There were some Gaelic-speakers floating around parts of Ontario back then, but I imagine that after the family emigrated to the U.S. (Washtenaw County, Mich.) in the 1860’s there was likely no one around with whom she could try to keep up her Gaelic except perhaps for some Irish-Catholic immigrants whose L1 may or may not have been mutually comprehensible and as to whom there might have been various sociological barriers discouraging seeking them out for language-maintenance reasons.

    *That said, she reportedly remained illiterate (in any language) her entire life, which I know only because mentioned in a family memoir, and presumably mentioned only because (unlike the situation in most times and places in human history) illiteracy in adulthood for a white woman born in North America circa 1840 was, at least outside of a few geographical backwaters, so rare as to be noteworthy.

  15. >Apparently the name Ó hEinirí is not (as I naively assumed) O’Henry but the Ó variant of McEnery:

    Technically speaking it’s the eirghative case.

  16. Heh. Éirghinn go brách!

  17. @Y: It seems that there must indeed be a substantial number of monolingual Welsh speakers living today; it’s just much like the Edward of Caernarfon problem. They stop being living monolinguals not because they stop living, but because they stop being monolingual when they go to school. That is, some English-Welsh bilingual parents will choose to speak only Welsh to their kids, but the kids are nonetheless going to pick up English eventually. I presume that there is a smaller but also nonzero number of children who are similarly monolingual in Irish.

  18. John Cowan says

    One of the point points of Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius is the difficulties of a monolingual English (but human-intelligent) dog trying to learn to function as an intelligent (for a dog) sheep dog in a monolingual Welsh environment.

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