The British newspaper the Telegraph reports that ten-year-old William McCartney-Moore woke up from brain surgery with a new accent.
When the youngster came down with a rare form of meningitis he had a twang characteristic of the Yorkshire area in the north of England, where he’s lived all his life, but after surgery to remove fluid around his brain he spoke with the kind of posh, upper class vowels one associates with Masterpiece Theatre’s Alistair Cooke or Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart.
Like young McCartney-Moore, Stewart, who plays Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “The Next Generation,” was born in Yorkshire, though he lost his northern accent not through surgical intervention but by studying acting at the Old Vic. And Manchester native Cooke no doubt acquired his own posh vowels when he went up to Cambridge.
Three kinds of posh: William McCartney-Moore, age 10, woke up from brain surgery with a dialect transplant; Stewart and Cooke came by their accents the old-fashioned way
Waking up with a new accent is rare, but it does happen. In 1999 the BBC reported that a 47-year-old woman who had visited Paris once, for a weekend, was left with a French accent after a stroke. Other British stroke victims have suddenly started sounding Italian or Caribbean, and a Czech motorcycle racer began using a British accent after he fell off his bike and another racer ran over his head.
In 2006, the Journal of Neurolinguistics devoted an entire issue to this phenomenon, called “Foreign Accent Syndrome,” or FAS, for short. It’s usually associated with stroke or with closed head injuries, and the condition is so rare that most speech therapists see no more than three cases over the course of an entire career.
While the National Inquirer might scream alien abduction, FAS sufferers haven't left home. Nor are they reverting to an accent they’ve subconsciously envied, nor have they suddenly developed new imitative powers. Instead, damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, the one which controls speech, affects their ability to articulate sounds, and listeners characterize this difference, which is actually a disability, not a new linguistic power, by equating it with some accent they’ve heard. The British woman who began to sound Jamaican to one of her relatives sounded French Canadian or Swedish to others.
Actors alter their accents on purpose, often with the help of dialect coaches. So do politicians. Contrary to popular opinion, Gerald Ford acquired his Michigan accent by being born in Grand Rapids, not by playing football for the Michigan Wolverines without a helmet. But Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are said to have sounded much more southern before they ran for president, while both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are learning to talk black in order to appeal to African American audiences. It’s well known that George W. Bush, who may have once sounded like William F. Buckley, had to ditch his posh Connecticut vowels and become a Texan to gain traction with his conservative base.
Dubya greets fellow-Yalie Bill Buckley with Skull-and-bones secret handshake. Critics claim that Bush began talking strangely after being hit on the head by a flagpole, while others insist he was deprived of oxygen after choking on a pretzel. In any case, it's not likely Buckley taught him to speak that way.
Since dialect coaching is slow and expensive, and it doesn’t always take, some candidates may try to induce FAS by having a campaign worker hit them upside the head with a flagpole or other politically blunt instrument. However, neurologists are warning politicians not to consider Foreign Accent Syndrome a quick, cheap fix.
For one thing, it might not work, and even if it does, candidates could wake up speaking not in the plummy tones of Tony Blair, which might appeal to American voters, but something more like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il, who may be popular in Iran and North Korea, but aren't likely to bring out the vote in the U.S.
Besides, FAS is a temporary condition, with most victims reverting to their normal speech patterns within three years, so the FDA is cautioning candidates handicapped by their accents not to consider the radical treatment unless the office they’re running for is covered by term limits.