The Mysteries of Foreign-Accent Syndrome

January 28, 2016

In 1941, in the height of World War II, a Norwegian woman named Astrid was hit in the brain with shrapnel during a raid. Two years later she met with the neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn, who noticed right away that despite her fluent Norwegian, she had “such a decided foreign accent that I took her for German or French,” he wrote.

He wasn’t the only one to make that mistake. The Germans had been occupying Norway since 1940, and though Astrid had never been out of the country, her accent made her seem like the opposition to her neighbors.

“She complained bitterly of constantly being taken for a German in the shops, where consequently the assistants would sell her nothing,” Monrad-Krohn wrote.

Astrid was not the first-ever recorded case of foreign-accent syndrome (that would be a Parisian man who developed an Alsatian accent after a stroke, a case first presented in 1907), but her case study was particularly detailed. Monrad-Krohn called her condition “dysprosody,” prosody being the elements of language other than the actual words being spoken (intonation, rhythm, stress, etc.). Astrid still had prosody—that is, her speech was not monotonous—but it was different than that of a typical Norwegian speaker.

The term “foreign-accent syndrome” was coined in 1982 by the neurolinguist Harry Whitaker, and it is, admittedly, a lot clearer than “dysprosody.” It’s a rare condition, but an interesting one, and there have been more than 100 case studies published. The most recent appeared in Case Reports in Psychiatry this year.

“The patient was a 34-year-old African American U.S.-born single female,” the report begins. She was brought to the psychiatry emergency room after assaulting her mother’s landlady, who she believed had cursed her using voodoo. Her family had a history of schizophrenia, and she was diagnosed with the condition herself upon this visit. She also spoke with a British accent. “She substituted ‘th’ for ‘f’ and ‘w’ for ‘wh’ as well as ‘t’ for ‘d’ and ‘ai’ for ‘ei,’” the researchers write. Unlike Astrid, though, she spoke in a bit of a monotone.

She refused medication, continued to have homicidal ideations toward her mother’s landlady, and eventually was transferred to long-term inpatient care. The researchers plan to follow up with the inpatient facility to see if it ever reverts back to American.

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