There was a story in the news a week ago about a 56-year-old woman named Karen Butler, born and raised in Oregon, who went to the dentist to have a dental implant, was given gas, and when she woke up in the recovery room had a glorious Irish brogue. Said “top of the mornin’ to ‘ya,” and other things. Thing is, her background is 100% American. And she’s never been to Ireland.
The dentist was quite taken aback when she talked like this upon waking up. He said everything had gone well, but what was this all about? She said, still in the Irish brogue, she had no idea where this had come from, and then she asked would it go away?
He thought it would. He’d read about stuff like this happening. On the other hand, it could be just something that had come up because she was still woosey. Then he patted her on the head, said he’d send her a bill, and sent her on her way.
A year and a half later the accent had not left. And then, last week, there was Karen Butler, don’t ‘ya know, on the NBC Today show talking to NBC’s Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. She still had the accent, and she told the interviewer she was rather fond of it. “It’s like having a new toy,” she said.
I suppose it’s possible that this is some kind of hoax, people say all sorts of things in all sorts of ways to be on TV. But then again, if she were just making this all up, her co-workers or friends or surely her dentist would have spoken up to point that out.
Dental researchers say that this is something that has been known to happen, but it’s a rare thing. They say that there have been only 100 cases of it ever reported and they think it is caused by a tiny mini-stroke in the brain. Before the mini-stroke you are perfectly normal, after the mini-stroke you are still perfectly normal, but you speak in a foreign accent, either just for a while, or forever and ever. They call it Foreign Accent Syndrome. So though they don’t understand it at least they’ve got a name for it. If you Google it, you will find that one of the first cases occurred in 1917 when a 16-year-old girl was brought to Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn, a Norwegian immigrant and neurologist living in a small town in Kentucky. The girl, Amelia Clementine, woke up from a coma with a pronounced British accent. Her parents were shocked. Krohn, who published this occurrence is considered the father of Foreign Accent Syndrome.
It’s interesting to speculate about Ms. Butler’s problem. I suspect that with a lovely Irish brogue she probably has gotten more clients to sign up for her tax consultant business. She might not have been so lucky if she came away from the surgery with a heavy German accent.
I wonder if all sorts of foreign accents are lodged in our brains all in a row. If the tiny mini-stroke had been just a microdot further forward, she might be speaking with a Chinese accent, or a Yiddish accent.
The way I see this, there is this tiny part of our brain where God has packed in accents the way our computers pack in printer drivers. You go to the printer driver folder, and there is this long, long list of printers you could hook up a driver to, and you highlight your printer and click on it. All the other drivers just sit there, unused.
I have had an incident happen in my personal life that might prove this theory.
Years ago, I went to live in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. I would be there for four months but I figured it would not be a problem. I had had to choose one foreign language in high school to study to graduate and I had completed two years of beginner French. Then I went off to college, flunked the foreign language placement test and wound up taking those same two years of beginner French again. Hopefully this time something had stuck.
What I found when I moved to Aix was that I spoke French quite fluently and enthusiastically, but with a limited vocabulary, no regard for the verb tenses, and a way of “Frenchifying” more difficult English words to be what I thought they might be if I had invented French. French and English are both descended from Latin after all.
Back then, the French were notorious for being mean to people who didn’t speak French. But they thought I was hilarious. Between my pig-Latin and hand gestures I got along. I would occasionally get shown off by French friends excited to show me to other French friends.
I didn’t return to France for 20 years. But then, about five years ago, my wife and I landed at DeGaulle Airport in Paris, went out to a waiting taxi, got in the back where I began to talk enthusiastically to the taxi driver—in Spanish.
My wife had no idea I spoke Spanish. Neither did the taxi driver, of course, and, in fact, neither did I. I never ever studied Spanish. And yet, there it was, this molecule in my brain right next to the French molecule I guess, that had now been trotted out, printer driver fashion. Had I clicked on it? I had.
Of course this conversation didn’t last long. The taxi driver was not amused. My wife was surprised. I was alarmed. I tried to put Spanish away and choose to speak French but nothing happened. It came out Spanish again. Eventually, I fell back on hand signals and those old reliable big English words that I could Frenchify—they came out Spanishified—and then I shut up. My wife wrote down where we had to go.
My French NEVER came back. We spent a week in Paris, my wife handling things and me, mostly quiet, trying to hang on to whatever was happening.
This is not full proof that I had Foreign Accent Syndrome, of course, but I have further proof.
Here in America, whenever I speak to anyone from a foreign country, which is fairly often, I speak English but with the accent of the person I am talking to. I talk with a Hungarian accent, with a Russian accent, with a Japanese accent, with an Italian accent, with whatever. I have no idea if the person I am speaking to thinks I’m an idiot, doesn’t care, doesn’t notice or thinks it’s wonderful. I used to think I unconsciously did this as a favor to the person since with the accent perhaps they would better understand what I was saying, n’est pas? Or they would just like me better.
But now I think it’s part of my tiny mini-stroke. I had it in that taxicab at the De Gaulle Airport five years ago, and since then the whole damn accent folder is corrupted.
Probably best if I don’t talk at all.