Fear of the dentist afflicts about 75 percent of all adults in the US, and now there’s something else to dissuade those afflicted from getting their teeth checked.1 Recent news reports describe a woman from Oregon who got sedated for dental implant surgery and woke up with a British accent. No, she did not go nuts from dentaphobia, nor was she faking it to gain entry to the royal wedding. Rather, she became affected by a rare condition known as “Foreign Accent Syndrome.”2
Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) affects less than 100 people worldwide, but even so, it’s disturbing enough to those who have it that there’s a website devoted to “FAS support.”3 According to the website, where you can hear samples of FAS-altered speech, “FAS is a speech disorder that causes a sudden change to speech so that a native speaker is perceived to speak with a ‘foreign” accent. The change can come about as a result of stroke, a bop on the head, brain injury, migraine headache, multiple sclerosis, or apparently, anesthesia.
The first known case of FAS happened during World War II, when a Norwegian woman was hit by shrapnel and developed a German accent, which got her into a bit of trouble given the politics of the time. Then a few years ago, a British woman named Linda Walker developed a Jamaican accent after having a stroke. This year, 35-year-old Sarah Crowell, also British, had a migraine that triggered a Chinese accent. The dental surgery case involved a 56-year-old tax accountant named Karen Butler from Toledo, Oregon, who showed no other symptoms, other than the accent. Recent reports describe another woman from the Pacific Northwest, Cindy Lou Romberg of Port Angeles, Washington, who acquired a Russian accent after her chiropractor adjusted her neck.4 Other documented accent changes include switches from Japanese to Korean, British English to French, American-English to British English, and Spanish to Hungarian. And by the way, men as well as women have been stricken.
The causes of the bizarre condition aren’t clear to scientists, although they suspect that victims suffer from a mini-stroke that alters their speech centers. According to neurologist and stroke expert Dr. Ted Lowenkopf of the Providence Stroke Center in Portland, Oregon, “This is a very small part of the brain that controls the articulation and the intonation of speech that’s affected, and that’s why it’s so rare. The chances to hit such a small area are more than a million to one in a stroke.” It’s far more common after stroke for victims to suffer from aphasia, which renders victims unable to use or comprehend language. Stroke victims also commonly experience dysarthria, a condition that makes it difficult to use the facial muscles that make speech possible. Both aphasia and FAS typically originate with damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, often as the result of stroke, but aphasia affects about 20 percent of stroke victims, compared to less than .001 percent who develop FAS.5
If you suspect that those who start spouting forth with sexy French intonation or mystical Russian sounds are simply emulating language they’ve heard in their travels, forget about it. FAS patients usually haven’t even visited the country their accent originates from. In fact, close analysis of those who have FAS indicates that their accent doesn’t usually correspond to any particular country. For instance, the speech of the dental patient, Karen Butler, on a close listen, doesn’t really sound like a pure British accent, but more like a combination of Irish, British, and some sort of Eastern European — Russian or Transylvanian.6
As her physician, Dr. Lowenkopf explains, “Although we think it sounds like a British accent, if you had a language expert listening to her, they would say that’s not an English accent. It’s sort of an amalgam of different-sounding speech that sounds like a foreign accent.”
What’s going on is that the FAS victims inadvertently change the rhythm, tonality, and emphasis in their speech. According to the FAS support website, these changes typically include, “equal and excess stress (especially in multi-syllabic words); consonant substitution, deletion, or distortion; voicing errors (i.e. bike for pike); vowel distortions, prolongations, substitutions (i.e. “yeah” pronounced as “yah”); and “uh” inserted into words.” The result, amazingly, isn’t gibberish, but rather, the exotic-sounding speech that listeners interpret as foreign — which, when you think about it, says as much about the listener’s brain as it does the FAS victim’s.
If it should happen to you that your visit to your dentist leaves you with sore gums as well as an undesirable Jersey shore accent, don’t despair. The condition often wears off. In most cases, people revert back to their normal accent in just a few weeks or a few months. In other cases, though, the accent persists for years, and apparently, the longer it hangs on, the less likely that it will ever go away. It’s not worth worrying about since your chances of developing a FAS episode are only slightly greater than your chances of winning the lottery — then again, there are people who have won the big prize multiple times, including one woman in Texas who has won it four times.7 In other words, if it happens to you, it’s no longer a question of odds. Just in case, you might as well pray that if it happens to you, your accent will make you sound glamorous rather than gross.
1 “Dental Phobia.” 31 August 2009. Dentist Dig. 5 May 2011. http://www.dentistdig.com/g/dental-phobia.html
2 Moisse, Katy. “Foreign Accent Syndrome: Oregon Woman Wakes From Surgery With Accent.”5 May 2011. ABC News/Health. 5 May 2011. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/foreign-accent-syndrome-oregon-woman-wakes-surgery-accent/story?id=13518030
3 “Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) Support.” 5 May 2011.http://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/index.html
4 “Foreign Accent Syndrome.” Wikipedia. 5 May 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_accent_syndrome
5 “Aphasia, Communication and Stroke.” 5 May 2011. Stroke Recovery Burlington. http://www.srcburlington.net/information-on-stroke/aphasia-communication-and-stroke.html
6 Dahl, Melissa. “Woman wakes from surgery speaking in vaguely European accent.” 5 May 2011. The Body Odd. 5 May 2011. http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/05/05/6591637-woman-wakes-from-surgery-speaking-in-vaguely-european-accent
7 MSNBC.com staff. “Texan may be world’s luckiest lottery winner.” 7 July 2010. Wonderful World on MSNBC.com. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38126776/ns/us_news-wonderful_world/ >