‘Everybody only sees or hears Mary Poppins’: American woman woke up with a British accent and still speaks with it two years later

‘It was hard, because I was really struggling,’ said Myers. ‘I have come to terms with the fact I might sound like this forever. I realize it’s part of me now’

 by Washington Post Alex Horton


Michelle Myers’ accent is global, but she has never left the country.

The Arizona woman says she has gone to bed with extreme headaches in the past, and woken up speaking with what sounds like a foreign accent.

At various points, Australian and Irish accents have inexplicably flowed from her mouth for about two weeks, then disappeared, Myers says.

But a British accent has lingered for two years, the 45-year-old Arizona woman told ABC affiliate KNXV.

And one particular person seems to come to mind when she speaks. “Everybody only sees or hears Mary Poppins,” Myers told the station.

Myers says she has been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome. The disorder typically occurs after strokes or traumatic brain injuries damage the language center of a person’s brain — to the degree that their native language sounds like it is tinged with a foreign accent, according to the Center for Communication Disorders at the University of Texas at Dallas.

In some instances, speakers warp the typical rhythm of their language and stress of certain syllables. Affected people may also cut out articles such as “the” and drop letters, turning an American “yeah’ into a Scandinavian “yah,” for instance.

Shelia Blumstein, a Brown University linguist who has written extensively on FAS, said sufferers typically produce grammatically correct language, unlike many stroke or brain-injury victims, she told The Washington Post for a 2010 story about a Virginia woman who fell down a stairwell, rattled her brain and awoke speaking with a Russian-like accent.

The injury caused her brain to truncate pronunciations for “this” and “that,” resulting in foreign-sounding “dis” and “dat.”

The condition was first documented in 1907, when French neurologist Pierre Marie surveyed a Parisian man who suffered a stroke and suddenly spoke with an Alsatian accent, though he was not from the Germany-France border region where the language is spoken.

Over the next century, only about 60 cases were documented in literature, the National Institutes of Health said in a 2011 study. Cases have spanned the world, from a Louisiana woman who suddenly spoke with a Cajun accent after a brain injury to a Japanese stroke patient who sounded Korean.

Myers told the Sun, a British tabloid, that she found her condition “really difficult to begin with … people would think it was a joke, saying things like, ‘You sound like a Spice Girl.’ It was hard, because I was really struggling. I have come to terms with the fact I might sound like this forever. I realize it’s part of me now.”

She told the ABC affiliate in Phoenix that she suffers from Ehlers-Danlos, a condition that makes skin elastic and joints flexible to the point of dislocation; it can also rupture blood vessels. It is unclear if she has ever suffered a stroke, which is caused by lack of blood flow to the brain. That kind of damage can permanently affect speech. (Myers could not immediately be reached for comment.)

“Some people think it’s physiological; others think it’s psychological,” she told the station. “People like me — we don’t care which one it is. We just really want to be taken seriously and if it is something that’s going to hurt me, help me.”

The most prominent case of Foreign Accent Syndrome occurred in Oslo during World War II. Norwegian neurologist G.H. Monrad-Krohn, in bedrock research for the condition, studied a woman struck in the head by shrapnel during a Nazi bombing raid in 1941. The injury distorted the rhythm and melody of her speech, suggesting a foreign accent to those who heard her speak.

There was a dark consequence to the misconception. Monrad-Krohn found her modified speech so strong that his trained ear took it for German or French. The country had been under occupation for more than a year, and an anti-German fervor gripped the country.

“She complains bitterly of constantly being taken for a German in the shops, which consequently have nothing to sell her,” Monrad-Krohn wrote in 1947 for the neurology academic journal titled, simply, “Brain.”

Curiously, the woman, identified as Astrid L. in the journal, was able to hum well-known sounds in cadence, but it was her speech that showed discordant rhythm.


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