May 7, 2011

Oregon Woman Has Foreign Accent After Dental Surgery

A 56-year-old Oregon woman awoke from sedation after dental implant surgery speaking in a British accent, in what some say may be a case of 'foreign accent syndrome' -- a rare, but very real, speech disorder.

Appearing Thursday on NBC's "Today" show, Karen Butler of Toledo, OR, described the accent as an odd mixture of Irish, Scottish and northern British, with perhaps a dash of Australian and South African.

"And I can't make it be something that it isn't. You can pretend to have a southern drawl and talk like John Wayne; I can't," she said.

"Whatever pops out of my mouth is what pops out."

"At first we assumed it was because of all of the swelling," Butler said during an interview with ABC news, referring to her initial symptoms following her surgery 18 months ago.

"But within a week the swelling went down and the accent stayed," she said.

Butler may have something known as foreign accent syndrome, a condition so uncommon that only 60 cases have been documented worldwide.

The disorder is often preceded by a minor stroke, with the new accent thought to derive from a minor injury to a tiny part of the brain responsible for language pattern and tone.

"This is a very small part of the brain that controls the articulation and the intonation of speech that's affected, and that's why it's so rare," said Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, a neurologist and medical director of Providence Stroke Center in Portland, Ore., in an interview with ABC News affiliate KATU.

"The chances to hit such a small area are more than a million to one in a stroke."

Certain blood vessels in the brain are more disposed to blockages, and a stroke often damages parts of the brain responsible for language production.

However, Butler said she was never tested for a stroke because she never felt any pain or had any neurological symptoms other than the change in her speech.

"I appear to be completely normal otherwise," said the mother of five.

"And I'm quite OK with [the accent]."

Butler said she struggles with the letter "W," which she pronounces like a "V."   Her accent sounds slightly British, but doctors say that is purely coincidental.

"Although we think it sounds like a British accent, if you had a language expert listening to her, they would say that's not an English accent," Lowenkopf told KATU.

"It's sort of an amalgam of different-sounding speech that sounds like a foreign accent. But it's not truly typical of any one foreign accent."

The condition is usually fleeting and goes away within weeks or months, Lowenkopf said.  However, the longer it lasts, the more likely it is to remain for good.

Butler, a tax accountant, said she was forced to start many phone conversations explaining to her clients that she was indeed still Karen Butler, their tax consultant.

And while she kept her voicemail greeting from before the surgery to remind her and others of her original sound, Butler said she is at peace with her new "foreign" accent.

"I used to be painfully shy, and now there's always something to talk about," she said.