The way we speak is so revealing, isn’t it?
From which languages you speak to the slang you use to the accent you have, it says so much about where you grew up, when you grew up, and who you are.
And who you aren’t.
What if, as an adult, you suddenly developed a totally different accent?
You couldn’t turn it off, and there would be absolutely no way of knowing when – or if – your voice would change back… Or if it would never sound the same.
Maybe you’ve heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS). But because there are fewer than 100 documented cases in history, maybe you haven’t!
This condition is so mysterious and confusion that maybe you have seen the headlines:
- US cancer patient developed ‘uncontrollable’ Irish accent
- Texas mom wakes up from surgery with a British accent
- Italian woman’s rare ‘foreign accent syndrome’ caused her to sound Canadian
- What is foreign accent syndrome? After a stroke, one man’s southern drawl turned British
That last headline was from Audacious, and it was an enormous challenge for my colleague and friend Jessica Severin de Martinez to produce.
Despite the headlines, most people who have FAS really do not want to talk about it. They fear that people will think they’re faking it. And because it’s so painful to talk about on so many levels, many would rather keep it private.
Those were some of the concerns I heard from Kenley Byrd when he responded to our interview requests.
He was born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Buzzard Roost, Mississippi. So when he developed a British accent… Well, you can imagine that was an enormous surprise for him and everybody around him.
It was 13 years ago. After falling and hitting his head, he had a mini-stroke. Then the migraines came.
One day, as he was teaching his high school English class, something shifted. He didn’t even realize his accent had turned British until a student called it out. He was as confused as everybody else!
Later that day at home with his wife, they both felt dumbfounded. Was this really happening? What even is this?
I love this moment from the episode, when Kenley says that the morning after this all began, his wife said,
“’I want to apologize, because I was wrong. I didn’t know if you were faking initially, but I woke you up in the middle of the night to put your CPAP on. And you said, ‘Hey, give me a second. I’ll put this on, yeah?’ She said, ‘in your accent! And that’s when I knew right then it was real.’ And I went, ‘Well, thanks for doubting me, babe!'”
Kenley and I talked about how, over 13 years, he has come to peace with the staying-power of his condition. And if it changes, he’ll deal with it then. He feels at peace with it.
Plus, sometimes people treat him a little nicer with this British accent! Maybe it makes him seem exotic, speaking like that in the American South. And he’s such a likable guy no matter the accent, so it has just turned into one more interesting thing about Kenley Byrd. There’s more to him than this.
Because the production schedule for Audacious is amazing, we currently have all interviews recorded to fill weekly slots for 5 months. This gives us the gift of flexibility. Guests can take their time deciding to join us. A show idea can evolve to something slightly – or extremely – different. And if your show’s main guest suddenly, after 13 years, gets his southern accent back and wants to tell you about it… Yeah, we can make that happen.
That’s right. Shortly after we recorded with us, he told me that was in class again, fighting through another migraine. Then the migraine lifted… And took his British accent with it.
His family were as dumbfounded as he was; there hadn’t been one time in 13 years that anything like this happened. And although there are still a few slight bends in his speech here and there, he sounds a lot more like the Southern man he is. Just a little softer.
We talked for a while about how much we identify with the way our voices sound. So if all of a sudden your accent is gone and then back again… What about you might be gone and then back again?
He was impressively serene: “I can still teach. My family still understands me. And isn’t that enough?“
You can hear the episode here.