Foreign accent syndrome: not really a foreign accent

Dennis Baron explains that in cases of “foreign accent syndrome,” in which someone receives a head injury and then begins speaking differently, they’re not really taking on a specific, pre-existing accent of a different language or social group. Foreign accent syndrome only affects the sound of someone’s speech, not their syntax or vocabulary. What’s really happening is that non-specialist observers—that is, people who are not linguists or dialectologists—incorrectly ascribe the victim’s new speech patterns to new expertise in recognizable dialect rather than correctly ascribing it to brain damage.

Dennis writes, “Damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, the one which controls speech, affects their ability to articulate sounds, and listeners characterize this difference, which is actually a disability, not a new linguistic power, by equating it with some accent they’ve heard. The British woman who began to sound Jamaican to one of her relatives sounded French Canadian or Swedish to others.”

Some stories about it:

Boy recovering from brain op emerges with new accent. Supposedly the boy now sounds “posh,” which is a British way of saying he sounds like he’s eddicated and moneyfied.

Bike crash Czech speaks English. A Czech worker is said to sound more English.

Stroke gives woman British accent. I heard this American woman on a BBC interview. She was vaguely British, but she’d also clearly spent time adding Briticisms to her vocabulary in order to make the most of her new-found fame.

Foreign Accent syndrome baffles medical experts. A woman in Missouri is said to sound French.

Geordie stroke victim now ‘speaks like Jamaican’.

Posted September 19, 2007

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