Item Details

Drowning in negativism, self-hate, doubt, madness: Linguistic insights into Sylvia Plath’s experience of depression

Issue: Vol 11 No. 1 (2014)

Journal: Communication & Medicine

Subject Areas: Healthcare Communication Linguistics

DOI: 10.1558/cam.v11i1.18478


This paper demonstrates how a range of linguistic methods can be harnessed in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the ‘lived experience’ of psychological disorders. It argues that such methods should be applied more in medical contexts, especially in medical humanities. Key extracts from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath are examined, as a case study of the experience of depression. Combinations of qualitative and quantitative linguistic methods, and inter- and intra-textual comparisons are used to consider distinctive patterns in the use of metaphor, personal pronouns and (the semantics of) verbs, as well as other relevant aspects of language. Qualitative techniques provide in-depth insights, while quantitative corpus methods make the analyses more robust and ensure the breadth necessary to gain insights into the individual experience. Depression emerges as a highly complex and sometimes potentially contradictory experience for Plath, involving both a sense of apathy and inner turmoil. It involves a sense of a split self, trapped in a state that one cannot overcome, and intense self-focus, a turning in on oneself and a view of the world that is both more negative and more polarized than the norm. It is argued that a linguistic approach is useful beyond this specific case.

Author: Zsófia Demjén

View Original Web Page

References :

Atkinson, P. and Delamont, S. (2006) Rescuing narrative from qualitative research. Narrative Inquiry 16: 164–172.

Baddeley, J. L., Daniel, G. R. and Pennebaker, J. W. (2011) How Henry Hellyer’s use of language foretold his suicide. Crisis 32 (5): 288–292.

Brain, T. (2006) Sylvia Plath’s letters and journals. In J. Gill (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, 139–155. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, L., Low, G. and Maslen, R. (2010) Finding systematicity in metaphor use. In L. Cameron and R. Maslen (eds) Metaphor Analysis: Research Practice in Applied Linguistics, Social Sciences and the Humanities, 116–146. London: Equinox.

Charon, R. (2006) Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Charteris-Black, J. (2012) Shattering the bell jar: Metaphor, gender, and depression. Metaphor and Symbol 27 (3): 199–216.

Cooper, B. (2003) Sylvia Plath and the depression continuum. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96: 296–301.

Crawford, P., Brown, B. and Harvey, K. (2014) Corpus linguistics and evidence-based health communication. In H. Hamilton and W. S. Chou (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Language and Health Communication, 75–90. New York: Routledge.

Demjén, Z. (2011a) Motion and conflicted self metaphors in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Smith Journal’. Metaphor and the Social World 1 (1): 7–25.

Demjén, Z. (2011b) The role of second person narration in representing mental states in Sylvia Plath’s Smith Journal. Journal of Literary Semantics 40 (1): 1–21.

Demjén, Z. (forthcoming) Sylvia Plath, Depression and the Language of Affective States: A Mixed Methods Approach. London: Bloomsbury.

Department of Health (2011) No Health Without Mental Health: A Cross-Government Mental Health Outcomes Strategy for People of All Ages – A Call to Action. Retrieved from

Drew, P., Chatwin, J. and Collins, S. (2000) Conversation analysis: A method for research into interactions between patients and health-care professionals. Health Expectations 4: 58–70.

Eggins, S. and Martin, J. R. (1997) Genres and registers of discourse. In T. A. van Dijk (ed.) Discourse as Structure and Process, 230–256. London: Sage.

Fekete, S. (2002) The internet – a new source of data on suicide, depression and anxiety: A preliminary study. Archives of Suicide Research 6: 351–361.

Flynn, D. (2010) Narratives of melancholy: A humanities approach to depression. Medical Humanities 36: 36–39.

Fundukian, L. and Wilson, J. (eds) (2008) The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale.

Greenhalgh, T. and Hurwitz, B. (1999) Why study narrative? British Medical Journal 318: 48–50.

Gumperz, J. (1999) On interactional sociolinguistic method. In S. Sarangi and C. Roberts (eds) Talk, Work and Institutional Order, 453–472. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Halliday, M. A. K. and Matthiessen, C. (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Hodder Education.

Hamilton, H. E. (2008) Narrative as snapshot: Glimpses into the past in Alzheimer’s discourse. Narrative Inquiry 18 (1): 53–82.

Hargitai, R., Naszódi, M., Kis, B., Nagy, L., Bóna, A. and László, J. (2007) Linguistic markers of depressive dynamics in self-narratives: Negation and self-reference. Empirical Text and Culture Research 1 (3): 26–38.

Harvey, K. (2013) Investigating Adolescent Health Communication: A Corpus Linguistics Approach. London: Bloomsbury.

Harvey, K., Churchill, D., Crawford, P., Brown, B., Mullany, L., Macfarlane, A. and McPherson, A. (2008) Health communication and adolescents: What do their emails tell us? Family Practice 25: 1–8.

Harvey, K. and Koteyko, N. (2013) Exploring Health Communication: Language in Action. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hunt, D. and Carter, R. (2012) Seeing through the bell jar: Investigating linguistic patterns of psychological disorder. Journal of Medical Humanities 33: 27–39.

Hussein Norouzi, M., Khomeijnai Farahani, A. A. and Borzabadi Farahani, D. (2012) Deverbal nominalisations across written-spoken dichotomy in the language of science. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 2 (11): 2251–2261.

Jamison, K. R. (2006) Contemporary psychology and contemporary poetry: Perspectives on mood disorders. In R. Crawford (ed.) Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, 191–203. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jeffries, L. and McIntyre, D. (2010) Stylistics. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaptein, A. A., Koopman, J. J. E., Weinman, J. A. and Gosselink, M. J. (2011) ‘Why, why did you have me treated?’: The psychotic experience in a literary narrative. Medical Humanities 37: 123–126.

Kiehl, G. (2005) The phenomenological experience of depression. The Jung Page. Retrieved from

Kirk, C. A. (2004) Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

McEnery, T. and Hardie, A. (2012) Corpus Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McMullen, L. M. and Conway, J. B. (2002) Conventional metaphors for depression. In S. Fussell (ed.) The Verbal Communication of Emotions, 167–182. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nin, A. (1975) A Woman Speaks. London: Butler and Tanner.

Ortony, A. and Fainsilber, L. (1987) The role of metaphors in descriptions of emotions. In Proceedings of the 1987 Workshop on Theoretical Issues in Natural Language Processing Las Cruces, NM: Association for Computational Linguistics.

Pennebaker, J. (2011) The Secret Life of Pronouns. New York: Bloomsbury.

Plath, S. (2000) The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. K. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books.

Pragglejaz Group (2007) MIP: A method for identifying metaphorically used words in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol 22 (1): 1–99.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. New York: Longman.

Ramanathan, V. (2010) Bodies and Language: Health, Ailments, Disabilities. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Rayson, P. (2008) From key words to key semantic domains. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 13 (4): 519–549.

Rayson, P. (2009) Wmatrix: a web-based corpus processing environment. Retrieved from

Rayson, P., Berridge, D. and Francis, B. (2004) Extending the Cochran rule for the comparison of word frequencies between corpora. In G. Purnell, C. Fairon and A. Dister (eds) Le poids des mots: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Statistical Analysis of Textual Data (JADT) Volume 2, 926–936. Louvain: Presses universitaires de Louvain.

Reeves, A., Bowl, R., Wheeler, S. and Guthrie, E. (2004) The hardest words: Exploring the dialogue of suicide in the counselling process – a discourse analysis. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 4 (1): 62–71.

Roberts, C., Moss, B., Wass, V., Sarangi, S. and Jones, R. (2005) Misunderstandings: A qualitative study of primary care consultations in multilingual settings, and educational implications. Medical Education 39: 465–475.

Roberts, C. and Sarangi S. 2003. Uptake of discourse research in interprofessional settings: Reporting from medical consultancy. Applied Linguistics 24 (3): 338–359.

Rodriguez, A. J., Holleran, S. E. and Mehl, M. R. (2010) Reading between the lines: The lay assessment of subclinical depression from written self-descriptions. Journal of Personality 78 (2): 575–598.

Rude, S. S., Gortner, E. M. and Pennebaker, J. (2004) Language use of depressed and depression-vulnerable college students. Cognition and Emotion 18: 1121–1133.

Sarangi, S. (2004) Towards a communicative mentality in medical and healthcare practice. Communication & Medicine 1 (1): 1–11.

Sarangi, S. (2013) Genetic counselling communication: A discourse-analytical approach. In Encyclopaedia of Life Sciences. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Schoeneman, T. J., Schoeneman, K. A. and Stallings, S. (2004) ‘The Black Struggle’: Metaphors of depression in Styron’s Darkness Visible. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23 (3): 325–346.

Scott, M. (2004) WordSmith Tools. Version Four. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Semino, E., Demjén, Z. and Koller, V. (2014) ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ deaths: Narratives and professional identities in interviews with hospice managers. Discourse Studies 16 (5): 667–685.

Semino, E. and Short, M. (2004) Corpus Stylistics: Speech, Writing and Thought Presentation in a Corpus of English Writing. London: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (1991 [1979]). Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. London: Penguin.

Stirman, S. W. and Pennebaker, J. (2001) Word use in the poetry of suicidal and nonsuicidal poets. Psychosomatic Medicine 63: 517–522.

Tay, D. (2012) Applying the notion of metaphor types to enhance counseling protocols. Journal of Counseling & Development 90: 142–149.

van Manen, M. (1997) Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. London, Ontario: Althouse.

Zinken, J. (2003) Ideological imagination: Intertextual and correlational metaphors in political discourse. Discourse & Society 14 (4): 507–523.