Demjen, Zsofia

Core Areas

Discourses of illness (depression, psychosis, cancer, death), health communication, discourse analysis, humour, metaphor, pronouns, negation, narratives

Research Agenda

I’m a linguist working at the intersections of language, mind and health(care), exploring mental/physical illness. Examining the language of patients, carers, healthcare professionals, journalists, writers, etc., I focus on how people say what they say to understand what it means to be unwell.

My approach is data-driven and broadly discourse analytic, focusing on any aspect of language that becomes relevant in a given context. I’ve worked specifically with metaphor, personal pronouns, negation, narratives and humour, investigating, among others, how:
• the ideologies of the UK hospice movement influence what health professionals consider a ‘good death’;
• the phenomenology of hallucinations differs from the straight-forwardly auditory perception of voices that others can also hear;
• humour helps people cope with cancer;
• the experience of depression is often characterized by physical pain and a split-self, along with emptiness and lethargy

My current project, a pilot project developed in collaboration with Elena Semino, Lancaster University, Filippo Varese, University of Manchester, and Agnes Marszalek, UCL, explores linguistic markers of ‘power’, ‘control’, and ‘agency’ in 10 interviews with people who hear voices and who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The aims are two-fold: to better understand what it means to ‘feel in control’ of one’s voices and to investigate the extent to which implicit power relationships in the language people use to talk about their voice-hearing experiences can predict their likely level of distress. This is based on evidence in clinical psychology that a sizable minority of people with a diagnosis of psychosis who hear voices cope well with these experiences. A key factor seems to be voice-hearers’ perceptions of the power of their voices to influence their actions and mental states and, in turn, their own sense of power and control over the voices.

While at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, I am writing up the results of two current research projects: humour in the context of illness, and linguistic approaches to voice-hearing. I am also working on a grant application for a new project (on humour), and editing a collection on applying linguistic tools in healthcare context (Bloomsbury).


I am a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Applied Linguistics at University College London, Institute of Education. I am Ordinary Member of the British Association for Applied Linguistics and Treasurer of its Special Interest Group on Health & Science Communication. I received my PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster University in 2011 and worked at the Open University before starting my current post. I am the author of Sylvia Plath and the Language of Affective States: Written Discourse and the Experience of Depression (2015, Bloomsbury), co-author of Metaphor, Cancer, and the End of Life: A corpus-based study (in press, Routledge) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Metaphor and Language (2017). My papers have appeared in the Journal of Pragmatics, Applied Linguistics, Metaphor and the Social World, Communication & Medicine, Discourse Studies, and the BMJ’s Medical Humanities among others.

Recent Publications

  • Semino, E., Demjén, Z., and Demmen, J. (in press) An integrated approach to metaphor and framing in cognition, discourse and practice, with an application to metaphors for cancer. Applied Linguistics.
  • Semino, E., Demjén, Z., Demmen, J., Koller, V., Payne, S., Hardie, A., and Rayson, P. (2017) The online use of ‘Violence’ and ‘Journey’ metaphors by cancer patients, as compared with health professionals: a mixed methods study. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care. 7, 60-66.
  • Demjén, Z. (2016) Laughing at Cancer: Humour, empowerment, solidarity and coping online. Journal of Pragmatics. 101, 18-30.
  • Demjén, Z. and Semino, E. and Koller, V. (2016) Metaphors for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deaths: A health professional view. Metaphor and the Social World. 6(1), 1-19.