Talking Funny – Frank McNally on the mysteries of foreign accent syndrome

An Irishman’s Diary

An Gie Mcyen: the Australian woman who woke from surgery with what she thought was an Irish brogue has brought renewed attention to the condition known, misleadingly, as foreign accent syndrome. Photograph: An Gie Mcyen/TikTok

An Gie Mcyen: the Australian woman who woke from surgery with what she thought was an Irish brogue has brought renewed attention to the condition known, misleadingly, as foreign accent syndrome. Photograph: An Gie Mcyen/TikTok

 

The case of that Australian woman who woke from surgery with what she thought was an Irish brogue has brought renewed attention to the condition known, misleadingly, as foreign accent syndrome (FAS).

While the problem is real, as explained in reports, the accent is not.

Or at least it’s not a specific accent that results. It’s just that the random new sounds sufferers produce are misinterpreted as one.

Indeed, despite suffering from a recognised neurological affliction, the woman in Australia has unwittingly found herself caught up in the continuing Wild Mountain Thyme debate. Her entirely accidental performance as an Irish character has also been reviewed and found wanting by critics on social media.

When I first heard of FAS some years ago, I wondered if it might explain another long-standing phenomenon that has puzzled scientists: how a whole generation of Dublin people woke up one morning in the 1980s – or so it seemed – making strange, strangulated new vowel sounds that nobody here had ever heard before. 

The condition was quickly diagnosed as “Dart Accent”, because of the coincidental development of the Dublin light railway service and because early clusters seemed to be concentrated in areas served by the train.

But that too was a misnomer. Soon there were outbreaks as far west as Mullingar. And besides, it wasn’t an accent, really, just a small collection of distinctive sounds, of which one in particular was defining. 

That generally occurred where the letters “ou” or “ow” coincided in words. From those affected, what had hitherto been a broad-vowel now emerged as if it had been squeezed through an icing bag with great force, taking on a whole new shape in such terms as “ryndabyte” and “sythbynd” (in another transport-related mystery, it seemed to feature a lot in radio traffic bulletins).

Anyway, after reading then that FAS was often associated with head trauma, I wondered for a time if this was yet another thing we could blame on Dublin rugby schools. They too tended to be concentrated along the Dart line. 

And a spate of undiagnosed concussions – perhaps because of new training drills – would be one explanation for the sudden change of speech patterns.

But as with FAS, women seemed to be more vulnerable to the Dart accent than men. And there was little rugby in girls’ schools, even in Dublin, back then.

Thus, the exact causes of the accent remain a mystery, nearly 40 years on. We should be used to it by now, anyway. And yet, in a related condition, especially common among people born before about 1970, the sound of it on radio and TV can still cause involuntary teeth grinding.

Another symptom caused by especially egregious examples is that it forces you to try and repeat the noise. And adding to your annoyance, you can never get it quite right.

***

Leaving neurology aside for now and returning to the traducement of Irish accents in general abroad, complaining about same is normally a birth-right confined to this island.

But his impending 50th anniversary has led me to the discovery that Ogden Nash, that great satirist-in-rhyme of 20th-century America and himself a pure Yank, also once did it in verse.

His poem “It’s a Grand Parade It Will Be, Modern Design” was inspired by a New York St Patrick’s Day of the 1930s and for the most part contrasts the life of the fifth-century holy man with the modern celebration of his feast-day in all its horrors.

It begins: “Saint Patrick was a proper man, a man to be admired;/Of numbering his virtues I am never, never tired./A handsome man, a holy man, a man of mighty deeds,/He walked the lanes of Erin, a-telling of his beads./A-telling of his beads, he was, and spreading of the word/I think that of Saint Patrick’s Day, Saint Patrick hadn’t heard.”

And so it continues, wittily, with only one false note. In every version I’ve found, Nash (or his editor) suggests that the saint lit a paschal fire on “the lofty hill of Shane”. Which has a certain ring to it, I admit. Thanks to the classic western, the Hill of Shane sounds like a hill you might die on. On the downside, it’s probably also the sort of place you’d find Wild Mountain Thyme.

In any case, Nash is eternally absolved by his last verse, which decries the commercialisation of the feastday in the US and the atrocious accents it inspires:“But the silver-tongued announcer is a coy, facetious rogue;/He ushers in Saint Patrick with a fine synthetic brogue,/He spatters his commercials with macushlas and colleens,/Begorras, worra-worras, and spurious spalpeens./I hope one day Saint Patrick will lean down from Heaven’s arch/And jam the bloody airwaves on the Seventeenth of March.”

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