An Arizona woman who has now been diagnosed with an extremely rare brain disorder claims she went to bed one night with a terrible headache, only to wake up speaking in a different accent. For weeks, the 45-year-old woman inexplicably started to speak in different English accents, like Australian or Irish, which then disappeared. But her British accent still lingers to this day, two years after her first symptoms appeared.
Michelle Myers, the woman in question, has never left the United States, but somehow she can uncannily speak in a posh British accent and lingo.
“Everybody only sees or hears Mary Poppins,” Myers told ABC affiliate KNXV. She says that often people don’t believe she isn’t British nor do they realize there isn’t actually that much funny about the situation, at least not for Myers, who says she wants her condition to be taken very seriously.
Doctors have diagnosed the woman, who has seven children, with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS). The extremely rare disorder typically occurs following strokes or traumatic brain injuries damage to the language center of the brain, causing patients to develop an accent that is different from the native language, without having acquired it in the perceived accent’s place of origin. One Virginia woman, for instance, suffered a concussion when she fell rattling down the stairs, then awoke speaking in a Russian accent.
The first documented case of FAS was reported in 1997 and since then doctors know of only about 100 cases. Some of the most common accent changes are British English to French or Chinese, American English to British English, Spanish to Hungarian, and Japanese to Korean.
Patients who have FAS have their speech altered in terms of timing, intonation, and tongue placement so that is perceived as sounding foreign. However, the whole time speech remains highly intelligible and does not necessarily sound disordered. According to the University of Texas at Dallas, some common speech changes incurred by FAS include:
- Fairly predictable errors;
- Unusual prosody, including equal and excess stress (especially in multi-syllabic words);
- Consonant substitution, deletion, or distortion;
- Voicing errors (i.e. bike for pike);
- Trouble with consonant clusters;
- Vowel distortions, prolongations, substitutions (i.e. “yeah” pronounced as “yah”);
- “uh” inserted into words.
It’s not clear whether Myers suffered a stroke or other brain damage that may have caused her FAS episode, but she does suffer from another condition, called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The condition makes skin elastic and joints flexible to the point of dislocation, leading to the rupture of blood vessels, which is why Myers constantly has bruises on her legs. It could be that Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is involved with FAS but doctors haven’t pinpointed a connection yet.
Because this is such a rare condition, treatments are also lacking. Sometimes, patients opt for accent reduction techniques with the help of a speech and language therapist. There have been cases where FAS has resolved on its own within a couple of months or years, but other cases have evolved and the condition can be permanent, as seems to be the case for Myers.
“I have come to terms with the fact I might sound like this forever. I realize it’s part of me now,” the woman told the British tabloid the Sun.