I was reading about an interesting study from Cornell this week. Dr. Morton Christianson, Co-Director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues explored an interesting linguistic paradox – languages that a lot of people speak – like English and Mandarin – have large vocabularies but relatively simple grammar. Languages that are smaller and more localized have fewer words but more complex grammatical rules.
The reason, Christensen found, has to do with the ease of learning. It doesn’t take much to learn a new word. A couple of exposures and you’ve assimilated it. Because of this, new words become memes that tend to propagate quickly through the population. But the foundations of grammar are much more difficult to understand and learn. It takes repeated exposures and an application of effort to learn them.
Language is a shared cultural component that depends on the structure of a network. We get an inside view of network dynamics from investigating the spread of language. Let’s look at the complexity of a syntactic rule, for example. These are the rules that govern sentence structure, word order and punctuation. In terms of learnability, syntax offers much more complexity than simply understanding the definition of a word. In order to learn syntax, you need repeated exposures to it. And this is where the structure and scope of a network comes in. As Dr. Christensen explains,
“If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it’s easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population.”
This research seems to indicate that cultural complexity is first spawned in heavily interlinked and relatively intimate network nodes. For these memes – whether they be language, art, philosophies or ideologies – to bridge to and spread through the greater network, they are often simplified so they’re easier to assimilate.
If this is true, then we have to consider what might happen as our world becomes more interconnected. Will there be a collective “dumbing down” of culture? If current events are any indication, that certainly seems to be the case. The memes with the highest potential to spread are absurdly simple. No effort on the part of the receiver is required to understand them.
But there is a counterpoint to this that does hold out some hope. As Christensen reminds us, “People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification.” From this emerges an interesting yin and yang of cultural content creation. You have more highly connected nodes independent of geography that are producing some truly complex content. But, because of the high threshold of assimilation required, the complexity becomes trapped in that node. The only things that escape are fragments of that content that can be simplified to the point where they can go viral through the greater network. But to do so, they have to be stripped of their context.
This is exactly what caused the language paradox that the team explored. If you have a wide network – or a large population of speakers – there are a greater number of nodes producing new content. In this instance, the words are the fragments, which can be assimilated, and the grammar is the context that gets left behind.
There is another aspect of this to consider. Because of these dynamics unique to a large and highly connected network, the simple and trivial naturally rises to the top. Complexity gets trapped beneath the surface, imprisoned in isolated nodes within the network. But this doesn’t mean complexity goes away – it just fragments and becomes more specific to the node in which it originated. The network loses a common understanding and definition of that complexity. We lose our shared ideological touchstones, which are by necessity more complex.
If we speculate on where this might go in the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in tribalism in matters related to any type of complexity – like religion or politics – and a continuing expansion of simple cultural memes.
The only time we may truly come together as a society is to share a video of a cat playing basketball.