Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Green J’s and Salty Wednesdays

with 4 comments

Today, I’ve been prompted to think about speech and language disorders. It’s a broad category that ranges from stuttering to completely unrecognizable speech, but here are just a few conditions that I found interesting:

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Imagine you woke up one morning and could only speak with a Boston accent. (I can imagine how Gregor Samsa felt.)

Usually brought on by a brain injury, FAS can alter how people speak so much so that they seem to suddenly take on a foreign accent. For instance, one English woman mentioned in this article suffered a stroke and when she woke up sounded like she had a Jamaican accent.

This intriguing little syndrome is actually just one type of dysprosody, a condition where the sufferer looses control of the intonation, pitch, stressed syllables and rhythm of language. Because FAS and dysprosody in general are so rare, we know relatively little about them. Still, some people have suggested that those who suffer from FAS aren’t actually speaking with a foreign accent; rather, their motor skills have been impaired in a very specific way that changes the way they pronounce their words. They may, for example, have trouble producing a terminal r, making an American seem to speak like a Brit.


Aphasia’s a broad term that applies to most disorders that involve difficulty understanding or producing language. Aphasia is also most often brought on by a brain injury, and according to the Mayo Clinic, people with aphasia can:

  • Speak in short or incomplete sentences
  • Speak in sentences that don’t make sense
  • Speak unrecognizable words
  • Not comprehend other people’s conversation
  • Interpret figurative language literally
  • Write sentences that don’t make sense

Aphasia, like dysprosody, encompasses a wide range of specific disorders. In one particular type, paraphasia, the speaker replaces one word with another inappropriate one. They might seem to speak fluently, only to substitute other known words. For instance, they might say, “I’m hungry. What’s for globe?”


There are some tricky definitions and a few specific types of this one, but basically, synesthesia is when the stimulus of one sense (a certain sound, for instance) involuntarily triggers another sense (like a sensation of taste as in lexical-gustatory synesthesia).

Someone with grapheme-color synesthesia associates letters or numbers with certain colors. It’s like every time you’d see the letter J, it’d be green. This is taken from Wikipedia:

As a child, Pat Duffy told her Dad, “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” Another grapheme synesthete says, “… In elementary school I remember knowing how to spell the word ‘priority’ [with an “i” rather than an “e”] because … an ‘e’ was out of place in that word because e’s were yellow and didn’t fit.”

Or, equally impressive is ordinal-linguistic personification where numbers, letters, days and months are indelibly associated with certain personalities. Again, taken from Wikipedia:

Cakins (1893) describes a case for whom whose “T’s are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but… 3 I cannot trust… 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity” (Calkins 1893, p. 454).

Of course, this is just scraping the surface of possible conditions and disorders, but for me, it’s a quick reminder of just how impressive our brains are. When you look at all the things that could go wrong to isolate us from communication or change the way we view language, it’s simply amazing.

And as one last note of curiosity, I can’t help but wonder whether synesthetes ever see a letter in white … could they not read the newspaper?

Written by Nathanael Green

February 1, 2010 at 6:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I did just recently come out with completely the wrong word for something, which surprised me. I can’t remember anything about the occasion or the words but I noticed it because I know it happens to people who have a number of usually quite serious disorders. Not that it worried me–it’s never happened before or since. I just thought, oh, that’s what it feels like.

    I do and have always had the sense of letters and numbers having personalities. I actually assume it’s quite normal. My sense of them is nowhere near so definable as the example. And it doesn’t occur when I’m reading, it’s only when letters are broken down into their discrete selves. Columns of numbers, for example can do it for me. Hard to explain, but I certainly understand the tendency.


    February 2, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    • Seana,

      I think that happens to all of us from time to time. Either that, or we get stuck on one word and can’t get off it. Have you ever played the games Taboo or Scattergories? I’ve found that when I play those games where you have to come up with words, I’ll think of one only semi-appropriate word, and suddenly be unable to get it out of my head.

      Nathanael Green

      February 7, 2010 at 10:38 am

  2. Yes, the brain is a funny place. After watching the bio-pic on Temple Grandin on HBO last night, I’m more convinced of that than ever. Although I didn’t think they did as good a job of portraying how her mind worked as they did showing her social struggles. To bring it back somewhat to the point of this blog, it was interesting that one of the hardest things for this visual thinker to learn was a new language, which sounded like gibberish to her. I mean long after it would to us.


    February 7, 2010 at 12:36 pm

  3. […] into a Coma, Speak Fluent German? Jump to Comments In a previous post about language disorders, I mentioned Foreign Language Syndrome. That’s where  a person […]

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