A woman from a village in southwestern England says that a severe migraine attack left her speaking with what sounds like a French accent — a striking example of a rare syndrome that neuroscientists say can leave lifelong locals sounding like they come from thousands of miles away.
Kay Russell appeared on the BBC earlier this week, speaking in a hesitant, husky voice, drawing out her vowels with an accent which sounded roughly French, or occasionally Eastern European. The broadcaster also showed a video of Russell before the change, in which she speaks to the camera in chirpy southern English accent.
Russell shook her head and smiled sadly as the video played.
"When I see that, I see the person I used to be," the 49-year-old said. "It's not my voice I miss. I would love to have my own voice back, but it goes way, way, way beyond my voice."
It wasn't exactly clear what happened to Russell in January when the migraine attack struck — a number for her could not be located and there was no immediate response to an attempt to reach her through her previous employer. The BBC identified her condition as Foreign Accent Syndrome, known only in a few dozen cases across the world.
Previous cases have included people whose newly found accents sounded German, Spanish, Welsh, Italian or Irish. In 2006 a woman from the northern England city of Newcastle reportedly swapped a Geordie twang for a Jamaican inflection following a stroke. In 2009, an English man who woke up from brain surgery speaking with what one newspaper described as a perfect Irish lilt. And earlier this year a German-born Briton reportedly adopted a Chinese accent following a migraine attack.
The rare disorder doesn't mean that patients somehow become foreign — in many cases, those diagnosed with the condition have never had any significant exposure to the country where their new accent appears to comes from.
What sounds like an accent can be the product of a simple shift in the way people move their mouths or emphasize certain syllables following a stroke or other brain injury, said Sophie Scott, a researcher at University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
"People might put little vowel sounds in their speech, so they might-a sound-a little-a like-a this — that's read by English speakers as being an Italian accent," she said.
The effect can be devastating. The BBC suggested that Russell had yet to make her peace with her new way of speaking, noting that she had lost her job and her confidence. Russell jokingly told the broadcaster she was considering placing an ad in the paper's lost-and-found section.
"Maybe at the end of the day someone could find me," she said.
Scott said that kind of attitude wasn't unusual, describing one Foreign Accent Syndrome patient who felt more comfortable in a London hotel lobby than in her own hometown, where well-meaning strangers often embarrassed her by asking if she needed help getting around. Scott said that feeling of alienation was part of what of what made the condition so unique.
"It's not only that you don't sound like who you are," she said. "You don't sound like the others around you either."