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Sudden Onset Regional Accent Syndrome

A recent blog post by Tim Worstall describes the lack of understanding that surrounds this embarrassing condition. He recalls his experiences as a chronic sufferer since childhood:

When at primary in Bath, good strong Bathonian. And the standard Eng middle class at home, like what I speak now. Of[f] we move to Italy to the Forces school when I’m 8. My mother still remarks on the near cockney (probably closer to what we would call estuarine now) that my brother and I both picked up in weeks. And started speaking as we walked through the doors of the school and dropped the moment we left them.

A SORAS survivor among his commenters, ‘Chris’, had an even more overwhelming attack,

“When I came back to England from British Guiana at 11, to attend an almost all-white boarding school, I had a strong Guianese accent – for about 10 minutes”

Another commenter, ‘Richard’ was a witness as the syndrome struck down a friend.

“… [he] said he could hear his accent change, in 2 or 3 stages, over the train journey home at the end of term.

Be aware that initial symptoms can seem trivial – hearing a person who has lived in England for half his life say, “put it down by there” within seconds of setting foot of the platform at Swansea station may not, at first, seem cause for concern. However without treatment “by there” can become interjections of “mun” or even “Ych y fi” with terrifying speed.

Although the disease is most common in its homolocutic form, in which people suddenly revert to an accent they thought they had abandoned years ago but did actually have at one time, it also has a heterolocutic variant.

At the London SORAS support group, I recently met Berenice (28) who blames the loss of her job at an advertising agency specialising in political campaigns on the heterolocutic form of the disease. At a creative meeting, she prefaced her query as to whether an advert suggesting that first time female voters might like to grant Ed Miliband the traditional jus primae noctis would really resonate with the youth demographic with the words “Not being funny or nuffink”, and was fired on the spot. Berenice was infected after discussing the weather with a work experience girl.

Some sufferers choose to carry an information card or medical alert bracelet in order to assist first responders when the victim himself can no longer communicate verbally in a way normal people can understand. ‘Quentin’ (not his real name), a plumber’s mate struck down with the disease after installing a combi boiler in this right posh house up on Primrose Hill, is very grateful he did. While just about still able to speak comprehensibly he called an ambulance to say he had “the most frightful case of SORAS” before lapsing into a kind of idiodialect in which the only words medical staff could understand were “yah” and “darling.” It was only his desperate gesticulation towards the bracelet while strapped to a medical trolley that stopped him being wheeled into the genito-urinary ward.

Related conditions such as TIGFAF – Talking In a Generic Foreign Accent to Foreigners – can be even more distressing.

34 comments to Sudden Onset Regional Accent Syndrome

  • Do you English have any idea just how weird you are as a people?

  • What you mean ‘you’, naturalized man?

  • Dom

    Explains Madonna!

  • I am legally British, but does that make me English?

  • Alisa

    Wot, no beverage alert???

  • john

    You don’t have to be British. I’ve suffered from this terrible disorder, in both varieties, all of my life.

    I find the homolocutic form the stronger of the two, but less of a problem. Onset is predictable and dependent upon the accent of those around me, or to a lesser degree on fatigue.

    The heterolocutic is more troublesome, since it brings with it the danger of appearing to be either obsequious or lampooning. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry, I once tried to imitate a friend’s English (London??) accent but he didn’t get the joke, or didn’t let on. He claimed that the more outrageous my parody became the more clearly I seemed to be speaking.

    I was amused by those around us at the time (in the US) who thought one of us had picked up the use of the word “reckon” from the other.

    I’ve also noticed that Mr. Obama suffers from this malady and frequently does appear condescending or obsequious. I’m probably uncharitable in seeing it as a cynical attempt at ingratiation being ruined by his inability to condescend to doing it right. But in any event, he does it woodenly. On the whole, not a good thing for a national politician.

  • Simon Cooke

    I recall meeting an ex-pat Hungarian who, post-liberation return to his nation of birth to discover that everyone thought he was a foreigner – his accent in Hungarian didn’t sound like a native.

    Sadly, his English retain a heavy East European accent

  • Slartibartfarst

    Sudden onset regional accent syndrome is a necessary adaptive behaviour, conducive to greater personal safety and societal acceptance.
    It has been described as “protective colouration”, to help the individual blend in with their surroundings, thus mitigating the risk of selective discrimination/antagonism and improving their chances of survival.
    Similar to the way in which the pattern on the wings of a brown moth helps it to be almost invisible against the bark of the tree on which it has settled.

  • Mose Jefferson

    I will very soon be moving my family back to a rural community. While the decision was primarily for professional reasons, I must admit that I was partially motivated by my health, which has been ailing lately no doubt in part due to the strain placed upon be by the urban variant of SORAS. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to once again relaxing my enunciation, dropping unnecessary syllables, and only needing to use one side of my mouth when speaking. The benefits to my health will be a relief.

  • On a slightly related note, I found that once I’d learned Russian well enough to speak, it would come out automatically whenever somebody addressed me in a different foreign language and I couldn’t reply. It was as if the world had come down to 2 languages: “English” and “foreign”, with foreign being Russian. Several Thais gave me puzzled looks when, desperately trying to make them understand me, I for some reason switched to Russian.

    I still do the same when I try to speak French, but this is becoming less common as my French improves. When grappling for a word in French, a Russian substitute appears from nowhere, sometimes extending to whole sentences.

  • I have the homolocutic form; my north-east accent typically only surfaces when I’m at the end of my tether, or when I go back to England (having said that, I’ve noticed I tend to think in my NE accent when reading a certain football discussion forum – in which entries are often written with a spelling that reflects the local accent and dialect, e.g. the term “anarl” which means “as well” or “in addition to”).

    I also suffer from a similar problem to Tim Newman: since I have been speaking the Taiwanese version of Mandarin every day for years now, it has become more difficult to recall the words I need on the few occassions I have to speak German – in fact one of the first words that comes to mind entirely unbidden is the word “vergessen”.

  • M. Thompson

    You’re not da only ones wit tat problem. Happens on this side of da pond, ya sure, you bet ya!

  • Julie near Chicago

    All I know is, as a northern-Illinois farm girl all-but-technically bahn and bred, whenever we went to New Orleans to visit my aunt and grandparents a Southern drawl manifested itself right around Memphis (mostly we drove) and five minutes after we’d crossed Lake Pontchartrain I was definitely a New Orleans native. Took me as much as 48 hours to recover, sometimes, when we got back home.

    Haven’t been down there in 20 years, so I don’t know if the effect holds…but I do still pick up verbal mannerisms as though I were painted with an appropriate version of flypaper. It’s showing up a lot these days, wot wit sittin about all day on me bum perusin you bloody Brits’ scribblins….

  • Dave Walker

    :-).

    It used to be, that the cure for SORAS was a regular aural supplement of Radio 4, but even this former bastion of RP has tumbled recently…

  • Tedd

    As a Canadian, I think I suffer from accent envy. We have French Canadians, of course, and maritimers (and Newfoundlanders, those hyper-maritimers). But that’s about it for regional accents. From the Ontario-Quebec border to Tofino there’s not enough variation to shake a frozen stick at.

    After six months in Australia I could make a decent guess at what part of the country someone was from, based on accent. And that’s just geography. You Brits can hang a whole cultural history on accent! Something like Monty Python’s “Yorksire Playwright” would be impossible in Canada (or nowhere near as funny).

    When you fly across the U.S., you get an instant lesson in regional accents from air traffic control. In Canada, controllers sound almost the same everywhere; even the controllers in Quebec sound the same, once they start speaking English. The only variation you get is the occasional aboriginal accent from a flight service station in the north.

    I’ve often wondered why that is. I used to think it was because Canada didn’t really start to get populated until early in the telecommunications/broadcast era. But that theory can’t account for the regional variation in Australia.

  • RAB

    Well strike a light and gawd bless yer Julie Poppins! Dick Van Dyke should have been taken out and shot for his accent in that movie.

    I was born in Caerphilly. I had a slight Welsh Valleys accent. Then we moved to a Cosmopolitan Heath in Cardiff, when I was 8 and it disappeared. You would not know from the way I speak (unless you are attuned to phrasing) that I had ever been near Wales in my life.

    However I am quite a good mimic, and love accents. I drop them into my conversation all the time to emphasise certain points and punchlines. I can do six distinctly different Welsh ones (bet you didn’t know there were that many), Brummy obviously, a bit of Thar Noes Yorkshire, and Scouse, amongst many others. The Scouse comes fraught with difficulty though, depending what time of night it is. The later in the evening the more drunk the LIverpudlians get and the more likely they are to think you are taking the piss out of them, rather than being affectionate, and hammer you.

    Tedd, I find that Canadians get really annoyed if you say to them on first meeting and hearing their accent… So you’re and American then?

  • I slip into a suburban Atlanta accent whenever I am around Southerners. I even say y’all every once in a while (as there seems to be no useful equivalent in England.)

    I generally think I have a neutral mid-Atlantic accent since being over here for so long. However, a girl on the train tonight sat across from me, clearly loved-up on chemicals, told me, with wide-pupiled enthusiasm that I sounded like a pikey. Furthermore, she told me that my braces and my chalkstriped suit made me look like a clown, “but in a nice way”.

    Don’t know how to take that…

  • Tedd

    …I even say y’all every once in a while…

    A fellow from Alabama cracked me up once by explaining that “y’all” is singular. The plural is “all y’all.”

  • Laird

    I thought everyone knew that, Tedd.

    And in Pittsburgh the plural of you is “yuns”.

  • CaptDMO

    My affliction used to be onset from too much adult bevvie. Strange looks ensued when I would break into
    French Canadian affected “rural” New Hampshire dialect, learned as a second language from the “proper” WASP I had beaten into me around the house.
    Some of my favorites are folk who drop “foreign” words or phrases in futile attempts at “codespeak”, only to prove they don’t even comprehend the literal translation, let alone the sentiment.
    Also see: Tatoos in “cool looking”, but clearly misunderstood, “foreign” alphabets/symbols.

  • Dizzy Ringo

    Very embarassing when you start talking with Brummies and lapse into broad Brummie….or Liverpuddlian…

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I thought us Striners only had two accents- city versus country! In the country they add ‘but’ to the end of a sentence, because they forgot to put it at the front. But.

  • the other rob

    This is a very timely post, Natalie, since I experienced a bipartite example of this phenomenon today yet had no idea what it was called.

    I was passing through a medium sized city in West Texas (Lubbock, in case anybody has heard of it) and stopped in at a gun store, as one does. While I was chatting with the owner, in quite neutral English with many Texan aphorisms, another English expat entered, speaking similarly.

    Quick as a flash, he was all West Country and I was all broad Geordie – to the great amusement of the native Texans present.

  • Julie near Chicago

    t.o.rob: :>)))!!!

  • Jim West

    I suspect I have a variant of this malady where I am a carrier, infecting others, but don’t actually express symptoms myself.

    The reason I think this is that I spent a year in Colombia, and over that time spent around 8 – 16 hours a day working/drinking/partying with a friend from the Czech Republic. He’d lived in England for several years, and his accent was basically a fairly neutral, perhaps mildly posh English one. Imagine my surprise when after perhaps three months or so, he began pronouncing vowels with what sounded like a parody of broad Australian. As I speak with no accent whatsoever, in common with most Australians, I can think of no other other explanation.

  • It was Natalie’s last three or four (obviously satirical) paragraphs that made me comment on the English, rather than any suggestion that this phenomenon is unique to the English. It certainly isn’t. My accent changes depending on context. I sound more Australian when I go to the pub. I sound more English in more formal contexts. (Australian accents tend to be more English the posher they are, so one would typically do this in Australia, too). Personally, I have similar experiences to the Hungarian described earlier in this thread. English people often think I am Australian, but Australians think I am English. People hear the differences from their own accent rather than the similarities.

    Tedd: Funnily enough, as an Australian I do not notice strong regional differences between Australian accents. I notice some regional accents – Adelaide is particularly easy to pick – but generally I can’t tell if someone comes from Perth or Sydney. As everywhere, there are differences in accent due to culture and social class as well, and I have always considered that differences due to these factors in Australian accents were more different than differences due to place.

    On the other hand, there is virtually no accident that I find more noticeable than a New Zealand accent, which is why I initially found it strange when I came to England and people said things like “I cannot tell the difference between an Australian and New Zealand accent because they are so similar”.

  • I generally find myself changing my accent and figures of speech to suit my audience. What Stephen Stratford said: “Manners, really – one speaks so as to be understood. Is this is a shift in register as much as accent? Certainly when I am in the UK or US I use a different accent and vocabulary from my normal one.”

    Hence, spending 6 months in California, I found Ts turning into Ds and asking to “get” a coffee.

    The first time I met Brian Micklethwait I found myself talking posher than usual.

    I think it all harks back to being a southerner who moved Up North as a teenager. All the kids laughed at my funny accent, so I had to adapt it.

    My wife is from Up North and occasionally lapses into a much broader accent for certain words.

    My father is the complete opposite. I have travelled with him to places such as Norway and New York and he singularly fails to make himself understood, descending even to such colloquialisms as “can I have a proper cup of tea, please, made with boiling water and a tea bag?”

  • Rich Rostrom

    SORAS is definitely not a British peculiarity.

    Obama has a serious case of it (though it isn’t so much regional as ethnic).

    I’m not sure how severe it really is though. When he was an Illinois state senator, the other black legislators would laugh at Prep-School-Ivy-League Barry trying to sound like a bro from the ‘hood.

  • Chuckles

    I don’t have an accent, other people have accents.

  • It’s so, so true. My accent was a mess anyway as a result of floating about the globe for so long but now it’s being “northernized” and I’m not right chuffed by that.

    Worse, it’s going Lancastrian whereas once it had at least some of the Yorkshire.

  • John McVey

    I had a job for about four years working entirely alone, and so I was speaking fewer than 500 words per day on average during this time. My speech skills got so bad that, eventually, not a soul could understand anything I said and it was a real struggle to be understood. When I realised what was happening I resolved to pick up the pieces, which included taking a job as a door-to-door survey-taker (I actually enjoyed that immensely, and was given commendations for my work). The result is that my present accent is almost entirely a creation of my efforts as an adult to speak properly.

    Not a noteworthy affair so far, but here is where it gets strange. Despite living in the South Australian semi-bush all this time, my rebuilt accent and register now sounds rather much like Captain Picard having had dental surgery about two hours beforehand. And, more bizarrely still, for a time there I was occasionally asked if I were South African!

    Okay, Picard I can understand, but where the devil did the hints of Sarth Effrican come from!? I’ve never been there and never associated with anybody from there. Your guess is as good as mine.

    My speech is still a work in progress (as anyone who has had the misfortune to speak with me can attest to), but, as strange as the above is, I have the inclination not to change that accent but to refine it – I would like the anaesthetic to wear off :)

    JJM

  • I have the inclination not to change that accent but to refine it – I would like the anaesthetic to wear off :)

    Make it so.

    Seriously, that’s a fascinating story. There are sad but interesting cases of people whose accents have changed drastically after strokes or head injuries.

  • Ed Snack

    I find that an Irish accent can set me off. One of my boys had an Irishman (with a delightful accent too) as coach, and I found myself talking so Irish at games that my son called me out on it !

  • I wish I could pick up a case of this once in a while. Although I’ve been in the US for 22 years now, I’ve just been out to lunch and had to skip the tomatoes in my ham and swiss sandwich because I couldn’t bring myself to say “tomaydo” and was too tired to deal with the comments or blank looks if I’d said “Tomahto”.
    And yet, when my Geordie family members phone up, I’m back on the Tyne in no time!
    Great post.