A Question about Foreign Accent Syndrome

I would be remiss not to mention this week’s news story about an Oregon woman who woke up from surgery speaking a different accent (Check out the stunning video clip of her speaking).

This lady suffers from a rare condition called foreign accent syndrome (FAS), whereby a brain injury (or some other phenomenon) affects the speech centers of the brain. It results in the unconscious adoption of something resembling a foreign accent. Here is another prominent case of this:

Some headlines  implied the Oregon woman woke up with a specific accent (e.g. “Woman wakes up from surgery with British accent”). Anyone with the slightest knowledge of English dialects will see this is not the case: FAS sufferers are afflicted with strange speech traits that may coincidentally sound like a particular nationality, but they actually have an idiolect entirely unique to them.

Because so few people actually have FAS, there isn’t a wide body of research about it. So this story got me thinking: Many of the people I interact with on this site have a fairly extensive knowledge of phonetics and accents. If I or another phonetics obsessive were to get FAS, how would it affect our speech?

At the risk of sounding cocky, I’ve used the International Phonetic Alphabet for so long that I read it as easily as I read the newspaper.  When I look at three basic vowel sounds transcribed in IPA–say, ɑ, i, and u– it seems unthinkable that I would lose knowledge of these symbols and what they mean. I’m good at imitating dialects as well: wouldn’t this knowledge survive?

This may be wishful thinking, though. Is it possible that if I had Foreign Accent Syndrome, I might believe ɑ to represent some other vowel? Would I be able to “put on” a standard American accent and cure myself? Or would all knowledge of accents and their phonetics be wiped clean?

I believe that those of us who have an intense obsession with phonetics perceive language in different ways. We codify spoken language on two different levels. As such, our relationship to speech is different, even if this difference is slight.

Would this special relationship survive the kind of trauma associated with Foreign Accent Syndrome? Or is our knowledge much more fragile that we assume?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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5 Responses to A Question about Foreign Accent Syndrome

  1. Kenley Byrd says:

    Interesting article. As a person with foreign accent syndrome I find articles on FAS interesting. As a former theatre and communications major I went to my old IPA stuff and found that my problem initially and currently is not a matter of phonetics but rather one of mechanics.

    I found that I had trouble with making certain sounds. I still can not articulate my lips, jaw, and tongue to produce sounds that resembled my old accent. What was a deep southern drawl was replaced by an accent that sounds English or Scottish.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks so much for sharing, Kenley! I’m often surprised that a question I pose that seems obscure often gets an answer from someone with direct experience!

      Stories such as yours make me realize how much less control we have over our speech than we’d like to admit. What we think of as a very conscious process is in fact much more innate. And easily lost.

  2. boynamedsue says:

    The British woman’s accent is more obviously pathological. I’d guess that it is something to do with her control of her tongue, she obviously has problems with consonant clusters, and intervocalic “r” becomes “d”, as if the tongue were “catching”. She also has problems with vowels which require moving the tongue, which is what gives her that kind of Slavic sound. The selective development of final Rhoticism is also intriguing, I expect it’s something she’s done to make herself more easily understood, which shows that she’s clearly not a passive victim of her condition, but actively working with her new more limited phonemic options to make the best of what she has.

    But I also notice some strange grammatical effects, the insertion of “s” in “libraries” can only be explained to my mind as “grammatical damage”. But all power to her for managing as well as she does, I bet folk have more problems understanding my Yorkshire nonsense than her new accent.

    The American woman does sound a little British to me, especially with the look=luck merger which all right-thinking people share. But you do find yourself trying to place her “original” accent, as if she were a foreigner who’d lived many years in Britain.

    • trawicks says:

      Great analysis. What you highlight is that both women are restricted by their condition only up to a certain point … what’s fascinating is trying to find out what that point is! These cases say so much about the interplay of conscious and unconscious linguistic impulses in the human mind.

      • boynamedsue says:

        Very true. I suspect we are dealing with two different conditions though, due to the fact the British lady’s speech is imperfectly relearnt after a total loss. If you notice, she is fully aware that she speaks differently now, whereas the American woman still perceives her accent in the same way. The latter reminds me of various cases of other afflictions detailed in Oliver Sachs’ “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”.