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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
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Woman awakens from surgery speaking in foreign accent

May 05, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos | HealthKey
  • As medical oddities go, this incident stands out: A lifelong resident of Oregon went to the dentist for surgery and awakened from sedation speaking in a British, or somewhat-British, accent.
As medical oddities go, this incident stands out: A lifelong resident of… (Yang Liu / Corbis )

As medical oddities go, this incident stands out: A lifelong resident of Oregon went to the dentist for surgery and awakened from sedation speaking in a British, or somewhat-British, accent. 

The 56-year-old woman appeared Thursday on NBC’s "Today," answering questions in what this MSNBC story describes as “an odd mixture of Irish, Scottish and northern British, with perhaps a dash of Australian and South African for good measure.” 

Some speculate that she may have foreign accent syndrome, a rare but real speech disorder. It’s most often caused by a stroke, but can also be caused by a blow to the head, brain hemorrhage or multiple sclerosis.

A person’s speech is still understandable, but the rhythm is unusual, according to a University of Texas at Dallas primer on the disorder. People may have trouble pronouncing consonant clusters or elongate their vowels.

To the speaker and everyone else, it sounds like an accent change—researchers have documented accents that sound Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Hungarian, among others. Here’s an audio sample of a woman raised in upstate New York who had lived in Texas for 15 years saying “stayed out all night” at a family reunion. And this is what she sounded like in a University of Texas lab after developing foreign accent syndrome.

A Norwegian neurologist documented the most well-known case of foreign accent syndrome: a 28-year-old woman in Oslo who was hit by a bomb fragment during World War II and woke up speaking, of all things, in a German-like accent. Here’s the abstract of a 2006 paper on the case.

But not all the accent changes are regarded as unfortunate. In 1990, a man from Baltimore started speaking in a Scandinavian accent after he had a stroke. Though the accent faded after 3 and a half months, he said he had hoped it would help him attract women.

healthkey@tribune.com

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