Broadly speaking: vocabulary in semantic dementia shifts towards general, semantically diverse words

Paul Hoffman, Lotte Meteyard, Karalyn Patterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the cardinal features of semantic dementia (SD) is a steady reduction in expressive vocabulary. We investigated the nature of this breakdown by assessing the psycholinguistic characteristics of words produced spontaneously by SD patients during an autobiographical memory interview. Speech was analysed with respect to frequency and imageability, and a recently-developed measure called semantic diversity. This measure quantifies the degree to which a word can be used in a broad range of different linguistic contexts. We used this measure in a formal exploration of the tendency for SD patients to replace specific terms with more vague and general words, on the assumption that more specific words are used in a more constrained set of contexts. Relative to healthy controls, patients were less likely to produce low-frequency, high-imageability words, and more likely to produce highly frequent, abstract words. These changes in the lexical-semantic landscape were related to semantic diversity: the highly frequent and abstract words most prevalent in the patients' speech were also the most semantically diverse. In fact, when the speech samples of healthy controls were artificially engineered such that low semantic diversity words (e.g., garage, spanner) were replaced with broader terms (e.g., place, thing), the characteristics of their speech production came to closely resemble that of SD patients. A similar simulation in which low-frequency words were replaced was less successful in replicating the patient data. These findings indicate systematic biases in the deterioration of lexical-semantic space in SD. As conceptual knowledge degrades, speech increasingly consists of general terms that can be applied in a broad range of linguistic contexts and convey less specific information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-42
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


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