LONDON — 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 last 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."
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It wasn't exactly clear what happened to Russell in January when the migraine attack struck — a number for her could not be located. 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, Italian or Irish. 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.
The effect can be devastating.
Scott described one patient who felt more comfortable in a London hotel lobby than in her hometown, where well-meaning strangers often embarrassed her by asking if she needed help getting around.
"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."