The Woman Whose Brain Gave Her a Fake Accent

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After a stroke, Rosemary, a woman from southern Ontario, began speaking in what sounded to her family like a very specific regional accent, that of a Canadian East Coaster. This, despite the fact that Rosemary had never actually been to the East Coast of Canada or known anyone from there. To Rosemary herself, however, her speech sounded normal. Her physicians reported her odd case in a 2008 article in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences. (Hat tip to Mo Costandi, who reported on the case back in 2008 for ScienceBlogs, which is where I first came across it.)

The patient: Rosemary was recovering from a stroke when her family noticed her odd speech, which they said sounded like Maritime Canadian English. “It’s a fascinating case, because this woman has never visited the Maritimes, nor has she been exposed to anyone with an East Coast accent,” Alexandre Sevigny, a co-author on the case report, told LiveScience in 2008. “Her family lineage is Irish and Danish, and neither of her parents ever lived anywhere but in southern Ontario.”

The problem: Instead of that, she now said dat; for think, she said tink. Greasy became gracey, and dog now rhymed with rogue. The accent persisted for two years, despite speech therapy. Perhaps this is because Rosemary couldn’t even detect her new accent.

The diagnosis: The medical team diagnosed her with foreign accent syndrome, a change in speech usually caused by a brain injury — in this case, a stroke. It’s rare, but it happens when damage occurs to the part of the brain involved in the basic motor functions used in speech. It’s called foreign accent syndrome because, typically, the patient’s new speech pattern isn’t recognizable as any particular accent. (In 1996, for instance, there was the case of a Midwestern man who, after a stroke, began speaking in what sounded like a British-Scottish-Irish accent, with some Eastern-European influences thrown in there, too.)

And because her speech is different from the typical foreign accent syndrome diagnosis — in that it was a recognizable, regional accent —  the authors of the case report write that it may help provide new clues of how speech production happens in the brain. Her case “suggests that the perceived ‘foreignness in [foreign accent syndrome] is not primarily due to dysfluencies which indicate a non-native speaker, but rather due to very subtle motor-planning deficits which give rise to systemic changes in specific phonological segments,” they write. “This has implications for the role of the basal ganglia in speech production.”

Rosemary’s speech was clear, so at least she was able to make herself understood. But at the time of the journal article’s publication, it appeared that she may have permanently acquired a voice that wasn’t quite her own.