Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
You Talking to Me?
May 14, 2012 - By: - In: Language - 21 comments

As a Mother’s Day treat, my wife and I made Izzi, our 17-year-old, watch Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese’ dark masterpiece set on the mean and nasty streets of ‘70s NYC. This was our misguided attempt to show Izzi, my enriched little East Sider, the city we once knew and loved, back when you could still find porno in Times Square and the un-affluent south of 96th Street.

Now that Twitter clipped the wings on my attention span, I’m prone to distraction even in the midst of cinematic greatness, but I did look up from my iPad long enough to watch Robert De Niro’s iconic and unforgettable “You talking to me?” scene.


But last Saturday, after the final splash of rain on windshield and the last splatter of ketchup on wallpaper, I remembered that I hadn’t really enjoyed the film that much when I first saw it. (Nihilism is a downer for me.) It was De Niro’s single epic line tattooed on my frontal cortex that had formed my whole memory of that film.

Now scientists claim to have figured out what makes these unforgettable movie lines so unforgettable. This will be good for commerce. People in advertising, political campaigns and cinema get paid big money to write catchy phrases that will stick in your mind and unstick your wallet. But the process has always been hit or miss. One painful example, the recent film flop John Carter of Mars, which missed to the tune of $200 million with lines like, “Did I not tell you he could jump!” Ouch!

Million dollar losses like this cost jobs, (unless you work in the banking industries, where you have to lose billions to get the ax), so researchers at Cornell University are looking to help creatives avoid their own memorable “You’re fired!” dialogues.

The research team took a list of favorite lines from the Internet Movie Database, and paired each line against another line of similar length, spoken by the same character in the same scene. A group of people who had never seen the film where then asked to choose which line was most memorable.

“Using movie scripts allowed us to study just the language, without other factors. We needed a way of asking a question just about the language, and the movies make a very nice dataset,” said one of the paper’s authors, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil,” to Science Daily.

Analysis of the syntactical pattern revealed that the most memorable lines use familiar sentence structure but incorporate distinctive words or phrases, and make general statements that could apply in lots of other situations.

Researchers found that a subtle combination of distinctiveness and generality determined which lines had legs. Lines referring to other elements in the film were less general and thus less memorable. Researchers defined distinctiveness by comparing word selection to news stories. The more distinctive the better. “Hasta la vista, baby” comes to mind, and is probably one of the few bilingual ones out there.

Memorable lines also tended to use more sounds made in the front of the mouth, more syllables, and fewer coordinating conjunctions, (and, but, for, or, etc.).

Since the only movies I watch now are those made by Oren Moverman, I fear what we got here is failure to communicate, since my film knowledge is so ancient. I hope readers can take a few moments to share some of their own favorites, contemporary or otherwise. YouTube Links would be great too.

The researchers have set up a website where you can test your skill at identifying memorable movie quotes and aid in their research.

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