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Picture of Zsofia Demjen

ORCID: 0000-0002-3445-6861

Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at University College London, interested in language, illness and healthcare.

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I work at the intersections of language, mind and health(care), exploring mental/physical illness. Examining the language of patients, carers, healthcare professionals, journalists, poets, writers, etc. I focus on how they 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, impoliteness, and humour, investigating, among others, how:

  • the ideologies of the UK hospice movement influence what health professionals consider a ‘good death’;

  • specific linguistic aspects of so-called auditory verbal hallucinations contribute to the distress of people who hear voices that others cannot hear;

  • humour helps people cope with cancer, build communities and regain a sense of empowerment;

  • the experience of depression is often characterized by physical pain and a split-self, along with emptiness and lethargy 

I often use corpus methods (alongside qualitative tools), which allow me to examine large quantities of language data quickly and systematically and to support qualitative findings quantitatively. Whenever possible, I focus on the potential practical applications of any findings for the diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions and for the quality/effectiveness of healthcare services and communication. 

I am currently Co-investigator in the £1m ESRC-funded project 'Questioning Vaccination Discourse: A corpus-based study (Quo VaDis)'. In an interdisciplinary team we aim to uncover and explore people's views and concerns around vaccinations by looking at how people actually talk or write about vaccination in different contexts. We want to better understand the range of pro-vaccination, anti-vaccination, and undecided views through language because how such controversial topics are talked about reflect and shape beliefs and attitudes, and potentially behaviour. 


The project uses the latest techniques for large-scale computer-aided linguistic analysis to investigate discussions about vaccinations in English:

1.    on social media (Mumsnet, reddit, Twitter)

2.    in UK national press reports

3.    in UK Parliamentary debates 


Each of these datasets comprises millions of words and goes back in time. Vaccine hesitancy, after all, is not a new phenomenon. For the three social media platforms, the team will explore everything written about vaccinations since their inception (respectively, 2000, 2005 and 2006). The analysis of press reports will go back to 1990, and for UK parliamentary debates as far back as 1830.


To do justice to such quantities of data, Quo VaDis uses the computer-aided methods associated with Corpus Linguistics – a branch of Linguistics that involves the construction of large digital collections of naturally-occurring texts (known as ‘corpora’) and their analysis through tailor-made software. A corpus linguistic approach makes it possible to combine in a principled way the quantitative analysis of millions of words with the qualitative analysis of individual texts, patterns and interactions. 


The team focuses on the different ways in which views about vaccinations are expressed, for example, through patterns of vocabulary, pronouns, negation, evaluation, metaphors, narratives, sources of evidence, and argumentation. We look at differences and similarities in pro-, anti-, and undecided views over time and across different groups of people, particularly as they form and interact on social media.


Our findings will make major contributions to understandings of vaccination views both in the UK and internationally. Through the involvement of our Project Partners, as well as more general engagement activities, our findings will be used as evidence for the design of future public health campaigns about vaccinations.


PhD Supervision: 

I am interested in supervising students in the following areas:​

  • Applied linguistic approaches to experiences of illness, health and wellbeing, especially cancer, mental illness, COPD, and vaccination

  • Linguistic approaches to non/fictional illness narratives

  • Interactions in healthcare contexts (online or offline)

  • Metaphor in discourses of health (and other professional contexts)


Details on how to apply can be found here.  



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