Friday, 6 May 2011

Oral fixation

No-one likes going to the dentist. On a list of fun things to do, it's up there with masturbating caged animals for artificial insemination or styling hair in the Westboro Baptist Church compound. I haven't had a mouthful of cotton-wool swabs in a decade - although maybe that's because I spent the best part of 18 months visiting an orthodontist every four weeks. The way I see it, I put the hours in up-front.

Unlike many people, I don't actually have a phobia of dentists. Ot at least, I didn't until I heard about Karen Butler from Oregon. Having flicked through a stack of three-year old magazines, she clambered into the chair for some routine dental work. It was only when she came round from the anaesthetic that she realised something had gone horribly wrong. 

When she opened her mouth to speak, she was shocked to find that her accent was a million miles away from the one she had when she'd drifted off to sleep. OK, maybe a million miles is an exaggeration - five thousand is probably more accurate.

Medical experts have diagnosed her with a rare neurological condition called foreign accent syndrome, since her Northwestern accent has been replaced with a curious hybrid of European sounds. Imagine Lloyd Grossman and Zsa Zsa Gabor arguing over the role of Inspector Clouseau.

Appearing on MSNBC's Today Show, Butler put a positive spin on her vowel-mangling cadences, claiming that she's quite happy with her curious speech patterns. Well, I think that's what she said, it's hard to tell. She could have been reciting a recipe for lemon chicken.

According to Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, medical director of Providence Stroke Center, "What happens with foreign accent syndrome to the best of our understanding is that a very, very small part of the speech area is affected so that the normal intonation of speech gets altered." It's often linked to stroke, head injuries and migraines - although it's hard to be conclusive since there have only been 60 recorded cases in the last 70 years.

Nonetheless, Butler managed to struggle gamely through the interview with Meredith Vieira, switching accents every time she opened her mouth. At various times, the host and the caption writers labelled her accent as 'British', 'English' and 'Irish', but at no point did she ever sound like one of those. Unless your experience of UK accents is based solely on a drunken screening of 'William & Kate: The Movie'. 

Maybe Karen's condition has nothing to do with the anaesthetic or the dental work. This could just be a previously unrecognised side-effect of tartar build-up or hypersensitivity. So here's hoping that toothpaste brands are taking notes - instead of photogenic women eating ice-cream and flinching, they could just highlight the dangers by running clips of Tom Cruise in Far & Away.

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