New York, Nov. 25: An American woman described yesterday how she recovered her voice after a stroke to discover that she spoke with an English accent, like a cross between Eliza Doolittle and Sybil Fawlty.
Friends and neighbours ostracised Tiffany Roberts, accusing her of affecting her new way of talking to sound posh, she said.
But Roberts was the victim of a rare medical condition known as “foreign accent syndrome”, a speech disorder caused by lesions in the brain suffered, in her case, during a stroke.
Her new speech patterns, mixing elements of Estuary English, Cockney, West Country burr and a hint of Aussie but nothing American, came to light only after months of therapy to help her talk again after the stroke.
At first Roberts, 57, tried to regain her old pronunciation, listening to a tape of herself recorded before she was paralysed and temporarily lost her powers of speech in 1999. In the end she gave up.
“I became a recluse two years ago,” she said. “I developed and was diagnosed with agoraphobia because I couldn’t stand hearing anyone say “Oh no, you’re not British’.”
She decided to publicise her case to encourage other sufferers to come forward and seek treatment and increase understanding of the condition.
“I’m so grateful that I’ve got a voice at all. I’m so grateful for being alive. No one would want to inflict this pain on themselves. I thought I was losing my mind sometimes.”
The accent is all the more strange because Roberts has never been to Britain, has never had a British boyfriend and was not a fan of British television shows.
But she became so desperate she contemplated moving from Sarasota to start a new life in Britain.
“It has to do with vocal tract posture,” explained Prof Jack Ryalls, of the University of Central Florida, who diagnosed her condition two months ago.
“British English has tenser vowels.”
A tape of her old voice confirms that Roberts used to speak several octaves lower and with a broad northeastern US accent from her Philadelphia upbringing. “I hear that that part of me died with the stroke,” she said yesterday after hearing the recording again.
“No matter how much I tried I couldn’t get her back.
“For the first two years every day I would try and copy the tape and simulate the voice. I couldn’t do it. So I would go to bed crying and wake up crying.”
Normally, anyone with an English accent is given an effusive welcome in the US. But love of the British is matched by contempt for those who ape a British accent to sound superior.
Roberts, however, had the extra problem of being seen as a freak. She even adopted anglicisms such as “bloody” and “loo”.
Prof Jennifer Gurd, of Hertfordshire University, said: “The condition is very rare and not part of medical educational dogma, so it goes unrecognised and untreated.”
Mrs Roberts was the first recorded case of an American acquiring a British accent, she added.
The first known sufferer was a Norwegian woman injured during a 1941 air raid who was ostracised after starting to speak Norwegian with a thick German accent.
As for Mrs Roberts, she is determined to make the best of her new accent and new life.
“God let me come out of the stroke,” she said. “I am not going to sit and cry about the accent. My mum said to me: ‘If you’ve got lemons, you make lemonade’.”