Memorability is something we all strive for, whether its making a big impression at a party or leaving a legacy to the world. Some are philanthropic; others are heroic. But for many especially those in the writing game it is for our words that we hope to be remembered (as Ovid wrote, carmina morte carent). By following sciences lead, you stand a better chance of making into a compendium of quotations.
Computer scientists at Cornell University think they’ve cracked the code for memorability, by going to the source of some of the most quoted phrases in human history. If you’re thinking Shakespeare or Churchill here, then you’re too erudite for today’s world. Hollywood provides many of the set phrases we deploy in everyday life. Whether at the bar or in the boardroom, movies permeate our language. Cultural osmosis means that this source material is oft-quoted both consciously and unconsciously.
Is there a formula for which catchphrases catch on? Johnson is wary of scientific papers that hang their hat on media-friendly propositions. Their sole reason for existence is often to be written about. But Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his team back up their proposition well.
The team trawled through IMDbs memorable quotes page for each of 1,000 films and drew out the most popular lines. They then took less notable sections from the same scene in the film, of a similar length and spoken by the same character (to mitigate any bias). A comparison of the two resulting corpora proves useful for those of us hankering for a place in the history books.
Syntactically, memorable quotes are quite basic. Unusual structures and plentiful subclauses may not survive the cross shredder of time. But in word choice, popular quotes diverge from everyday language. 60% of memorable quotes used language that was more distinctive than that the found in a standard corpus of words culled from news stories. As the authors of the paper write, these results suggest that memorable quotes consist of unusual word sequences built on common syntactic scaffolding: flowery wallpaper on the walls of an otherwise forgettable room.
But wait a minute, wait a minute I tell ya! You ain’t heard nothin yet! Distinctive quotes should also be re-usable in a new context, which is why your correspondent can use the above (from 1927s The Jazz Singer) in a post about linguistic analysis. Personal pronouns save for the generic you used in the above quote are noted to hinder a phrases memorability.
When one of the memorable quotes is paired randomly with one of the non-memorable ones, the memorable one uses fewer (non-you) pronouns 61% of the time. Similarly, indefinite articles (57%) and present-tense verbs (54%) remove tethers to specific things and specific moments in the past. In other words, they render a phrase more pliable to all contexts. Test subjects recognised the memorable quotes whether they had seen the source movie or not.
The way a phrase sounds also helps improve its chances or worming into the brain. Memorable quotes use more front-vowel sounds (like ee and eh) than back-vowel sounds (such as u and o), the research finds. Sound symbolism is still a disputed science, but its proponents regularly find that front vowels are perceived as more lively (and therefore more memorable) than back vowels.
Shorn of their cinematic surroundings, the selected phrases both memorable and forgettable are involved in a struggle for survival of the fittest. It seems that the right combination of simplicity (in syntax) and distinctiveness (in word-choice) best gives a phrase a fighting chance of surviving through the generations. Your correspondent will be bearing all this in mind as he searches for immortality; no writer wants to find himself washed-up and moaning to his fellows “I coulda been a contender.”
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