I recently checked how much space the text of my new book took up on the computer hard drive. Disappointingly, it only came to 262 KB, or about a quarter of a megabyte. By contrast, one of the pictures in the book took up 397KB of space. (A modern picture snapped on a mobile phone typically takes up two or three megabytes.)
The book, by the way, took several years to write whereas the picture took about 5 seconds to shoot!
But if you had the option to get either the text or the picture free of charge, I think you’d go for the text, no? What is it about a text that we value so much when it only seems to take up a small amount of physical space on disk?
I would suggest it is the nature of the linguistic relations contained within the text that make it special – a relationship that is not found in any other part of nature. Consider the first sentence in Chapter 1 of the book below. I’ve separated each word with the piping character to emphasise the nature of the linguistic relation.
To | begin | I | would | like | to | start | with | a | thought | experiment | for | you | to | consider.
Each word is related to the next in a very special way. These words are not like paving stones laid out on a road, each one physically jutting up against the next. Instead, each word is related to the next in a linguistic relation that is unique to language: noun to verb to preposition and so on.
Each word is also a part of a phrase and the linguistic relations continue between these. For example, the noun phrase ‘I’ is related to the verb phrase ‘would like to start’, and the prepositional phrase ‘for you’ is related to the non-finite verb phrase ‘to consider’.
To begin | I | would like to start | with a thought experiment | for you | to consider.
Then at even higher levels we have relations of the subject to the predicate and the adjunct to the rest of the sentence.
To begin | I | would like to start with a thought experiment …adjunct subj. predicate
Language is special because it is built around relations like these. There is no other type of relation like this in nature. All we find are physical relations.
So while pictures and paving stones can entertain our minds for a limited period of time, we always come back to language: books, novels, poems, newspapers, Twitter all consume our attention quite simply because they are built on linguistic relations.
My book consumed my attention for several years. I hope it won’t take you that long to read it but I guarantee it will help you understand the nature of the linguistic relation. You can buy it on Amazon in paperback or eBook. (Sorry, can’t give it away for free!)