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Language of Voice Hearing


Research at the UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics


Archive for the 'Projects' Category

Second publication from Power, Control and the Language of Voice-hearing

By Zsofia Demjen, on 8 July 2020

The second paper emerging from the Power, Control and the Language of  Voice-hearing project is finally out in the form of a books chapter in Demjén, Z. (ed) (2020) Applying Linguistics in Illness and Healthcare Contexts. London: Bloomsbury. (more…)

Language of Voice-hearing featured in the UCL Minds Lunch Hour Lecture series

By Zsofia Demjen, on 10 October 2019

In this public lecture, I reported on parts of the Language of Voice Hearing project. I hope you will find it interesting!


Voice-hearing is reported by approximately 70% of individuals with schizophrenia-spectrum diagnoses, but a sizable minority cope well with such experiences. A key factor is the hearers’ perceptions of the power of the voices. In this talk, I report on a study of how 10 voice-hearers, with diagnoses of schizophrenia, describe their interactions with their voices. I show that the precise ways in which the voices attack or, more rarely, bolster, multiple aspects of the hearer’s sense of self are key to how the voices exercise power. I suggest how this kind of analysis might feed into existing therapies of voice-hearing.


First paper is out: voice-hearing and metaphor

By Zsofia Demjen, on 8 February 2019

It’s been a long time coming, but the first paper based on our pilot project is now available ‘online first’! It is also open access.

Metaphor framing and distress in lived-experience accounts of voice-hearing‘ explores the potential role of metaphor as a signal and determinant of distress in first-person accounts of voice-hearing by people with schizophrenia diagnoses.

We focused on metaphors because they are well known to both reflect and reinforce particular ways of making sense of subjective and sensitive experiences, including in terms of attributions of agency, power and control. We also know that the degree of distress experienced by voice-hearers depends, amongst other factors, on voice-hearers’ perceptions of the “power” of the voices, and on the extent to which the voices can control or be controlled by the person.

We identified and analysed metaphors in 10 semi-structured interviews with voice-hearers with diagnoses of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. We focused in particular on metaphors that related to the phenomenology of voice-hearing and the relationship between voice-hearers and voices.

Divergent uses of metaphors framed the experience of voice-hearing in distinctive ways and were found to have different implications for perceptions of mutual power and control between voice-hearer and voices. Participants who used metaphors in which they are in disempowered positions tended to report higher level of distress, while participants who used metaphors in ways that constructed them as empowered tended to report lower levels of distress.

For more details, see the full paper in Psychosis.

Power, Control and the Language of Voice-hearing – A Findings Taster

By Zsofia Demjen, on 21 September 2017

A taster of our preliminary findings from the  Power, Control and Language of Voice-hearing project.

Certain facework patterns (politeness and impoliteness) in reports of interactions between voice-hearers and their voices can cause or contribute to distress in voice-hearers. These include (but are not limited to) the presence of large numbers of face attacks from voice to person; lack of reciprocity in the facework being reported; the hearer perceiving themselves as unable to react or respond, or resist as they wish to.

Also likely to contribute to distress, are transitivity patterns where the voices are able to affect change on the participant without conditions, while participants are only able to attempt (and often fail) to affect change on the voice under certain circumstances.

Finally, some metaphors tend to be used by people who are distressed by their voices, while those coping better use different metaphors. The key distinction between these two groups of metaphors is whether they frame experiences in ways that (dis)empower participants.

This can all be linked to the broad concept of ‘control’ (i.e. the ability to lead the life you want to lead)  and show the variety of ways in which the voices may limit a person’s sense of it.

These are only preliminary headlines of course. We’ll be able to say much more in the papers we are currently working on.


Final symposium

By Zsofia Demjen, on 7 September 2017

Update on the Power, Control and the Language of Voice-hearing project involving Zsofia Demjen, Elena Semino, Filippo Varese, and Agnes Marszalek.

Earlier this week we presented our approach, tentative results and ideas for next steps to a group of six advisors: 3 linguists  and 3 voice-hearing experts, all from various disciplines. Daunting in principle, very exciting in practice.

We organised the day around 4 presentations, each with its own 30min discussion slot, starting with the most complex analysis and getting progressively easier as the day went on:

  • Introduction to the Project
  • Interactional Behaviour of Voice and Person – power dynamics and spheres of influence
  • Transitivity & Negation – agency, ability and (frustrated) effort
  • Metaphor – framing and empowerment

The format seemed to work quite well, with just enough time to absorb different linguistic approach and think through some implications.


LangVH Symposium cover slide

Coding complete

By Zsofia Demjen, on 10 August 2017

Update on the Power, Control and the Language of Voice-hearing project involving Zsofia Demjen, Elena Semino, Filippo Varese, and Agnes Marszalek.

Ten interviews with people who hear voices are now coded and ready for more in-depth analysis.  We broke the interviews down into clauses and coded each clause (between 200-1000 per interview) for:

  • interactional features (what is being reported as said by Voice or Hearer, is anyone’s face being threatened or supported and in what way, what speech acts are being used, what is the reported effect or consequence of an utterance)
  • transitivity (who does what to whom)
  • metaphor
  • negation (no, not, never, nothing)

and a few other features that will help us make sense of patterns. Needless to say, our spreadsheets are complex.



Past Project: Henry’s Demons

By Zsofia Demjen, on 29 July 2017

In 2015, Elena Semino of Lancaster University and Zsofia Demjen of UCL published a paper applying linguistic analysis to Patrick and Henry Cockburn’s autobiographical narrative Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, A Father and Son’s Story (2011, Simon & Schuster).

The book recounts the events surrounding Henry Cockburn’s diagnosis of schizophrenia from the alternating perspectives of Henry himself and his father Patrick. In our paper, we present a detailed linguistic analysis of Henry’s first-person accounts of experiences that could be described as auditory verbal hallucinations. We first provide a typology of Henry’s voices, taking into account who or what is presented as speaking, what kinds of utterances they produce and any salient stylistic features of these utterances. We then discuss the linguistically distinctive ways in which Henry represents these voices in his narrative. We focus on the use of Direct Speech as opposed to other forms of speech presentation, the use of the sensory verbs hear and feel and the use of ‘non-factive’ expressions such as I thought and as if. We show how different linguistic representations may suggest phenomenological differences between the experience of hallucinatory voices and the perception of voices that other people can also hear. We, therefore, propose that linguistic analysis is ideally placed to provide in-depth accounts of the phenomenology of voice hearing and point out the implications of this approach for clinical practice and mental healthcare.

More here.

Current Project: Power, Control and the Language of Voice-hearing

By Zsofia Demjen, on 7 May 2017

A new pilot project has just started at the UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics. Funded by a Seed Image of head with speech bubbles in itGrant from the UCL Institute of Education, Zsofia Demjen, UCL, Elena Semino, Lancaster University, Filipp
o Varese
, University of Manchester, and Agnes Marszalek, UCL,  are exploring linguistic markers of ‘power’, ‘control’, and ‘agency’ in 10 interviews with people who hear voices and who have a clinical diagnosis.

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.

The team will meet with a group of advisors in early September to discuss ways in which ideas can be taken forward in a larger project.