Green J’s and Salty Wednesdays
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).
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?