Friday, February 27, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #99: Foreign Accent Syndrome

I know it’s been a couple of months since I last blogged, but after two months of everyone asking, “Are you still writing your blog?” I’ve decided that yes, I am still writing my blog. So here you go.

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a rare medical disorder in which the patient develops a foreign accent. The accent usually occurs as the result of a brain injury or stroke, but can also be the result of a migraine or developmental problem. Foreign accent syndrome gets its name because those listening to the affected person perceive them to have an accent, but in fact, it’s not an accent, it’s a speech impediment that kind of sounds French, Italian, Lithuanian, German, or Japanese.

Foreign accent syndrome, or FAS, was first identified in 1907 by a French neurologist, Pierre Marie. Another early case occurred in Czech in 1919. In Norway in 1941, a woman in her 30s identified only as Astrid L. sustained a head injury after being struck by shrapnel during an air raid. According to one source, she suffered “a splintered skull and exposed brain,” which is unfortunate, because I was eating whilst I wrote this. Though Astrid did recover, she woke up with a German accent in perhaps the worst time and place to have a German accent.


As a result, she was “ostracized and sometimes refused service in shops,” which is probably the best she could have hoped for under the circumstances.

Only 62 cases of foreign accent syndrome were recorded between Astrid L. in 1941 and 2009. Documented accent changes have included Spanish to Hungarian, British English to French, American English to British, and Japanese to Korean. One British woman, Kath Lockett, woke up in 2006 with an Italian accent. A Canadian woman, Sharon Campbell-Rayment, fell from a horse and developed a Scottish accent, complete with the use of “words such as ‘wee,’ ‘grand,’ ‘awright,’ and ‘brilliant.’”

 Ms. Campbell-Rayment, whose ancestors had emigrated to Canada more than a century prior, decided this turn of events was “definitely a sign” and not in any way random at all, like it actually was. She went so far as to travel to Scotland with her husband to perform genealogy research, and is writing a book about her experiences with traumatic brain injury (which has to be difficult, given she’s experienced a traumatic brain injury). Another British woman, Sarah Colwill, went into hospital with a migraine in 2010 and woke up with a Chinese accent. Hilariously, Ms. Colwill can no longer say the word can’t: “I always say ‘you can not,’ because otherwise it comes out, ‘you cunt,” she told The Huffington Post.

All jokes aside, most people (with the exception of Ms. Campbell-Rayment, who is Canadian after all), seem pretty distraught about their new accents. Ms. Lockett told the Mirror that she felt like she’d been “robbed” of her native accent, and Ms. Colwill told documentary filmmakers that “you don’t even know who you are anymore.” I mean, wow. I’d like to think that I’d still know who I was no matter what accent I had, and I’m saying that as someone whose accent has changed quite a lot over the past 15 years thanks to living literally everywhere, but maybe that’s just me.

The speech changes that occur with FAS are usually consistent, and include deletion, distortion, or substitution of consonants; prolongation, distortion, or substitution of vowels; and unusual prosody, or the rhythm and intonation of speech. The disorder appears to occur due to damage to specific parts of the brain, those that control linguistic functions including speech patterns and pitch. The cerebellum may also be implicated. Though people with FAS don’t actually gain the ability to speak the language whose accent they’ve developed, it is possible for others, especially children, to pick up the new accent from the affected person.