On 2 July 2001, three underground trains on the London Victoria line were
halted in a tunnel, where they remained for over an hour. Passengers had to
be evacuated, and over six hundred treated for heat exhaustion
quence, it seemed, of too
and too many people. An
investigation was subsequently launched into what was termed 'overcrowding'
on underground trains. On 23 January 2003, however, London Underground
officially stated that there was 'no such thing as an overcrowded Tube train',
since the term meant 'excess over a defined limit', and no restriction on
passenger numbers had ever been set (London Metro, 24 January 2003: 11).
Trains could therefore only ever be crowded and there was subsequently no
cause for alarm.
Such examples of linguistic sleight-of-hand are not uncommon. Indeed,
many of us are very aware of similar types of 'trickery' in advertising, news
reporting and even (or especially?) political speeches. The fact that it is so
common implies a perceived link between how we talk about things and
how we construe them: London Underground, for example, chose to represent
conditions on the train in a way that not only mitigates their responsibility
to passengers but also potentially alleviates fears about commuter safety.
A similar example arose in the 1990s when the tobacco industry in Britain
was accused of not explic~tly warning consumers of the dangers of low-tar
cigarettes, which were instead marketed as a 'healthier' alternative to the stan-
dard, high-tar varieties. A spokesperson for the anti-tobacco league stated in
a radio interv~ew
that such 'irresponsible advertising' was akin to telling people
that they'd be safer jumping out of a second, rather than fifth, storey window.
It's not just people in the public eye who exploit the links between
language use and perception. All language users can, and do, make similar
it has even been argued that such alternative 'angles on reality' ex~st
within the resources of individual languages but also between languages them-
selves. The following sections explore both of these ideas, and we begin by
looking at a well-known theory of language as a representational system
devised by Ferdinand de Saussure. Section 2 3 then looks at the premises of
the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which poslts a relationship between experience,