Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a grammatically correct sentence in English that is often presented as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs through lexical ambiguity. It has been discussed in literature in various forms since 1967, when it appeared in Dmitri Borgmann's Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought.

Simplified parse tree

S = sentence
NP = noun phrase
RC = relative clause
VP = verb phrase
PN = proper noun
N = noun
V = verb

The sentence employs three distinct meanings of the word buffalo:

  • As an attributive noun (acting as an adjective) to refer to a specific place named Buffalo, such as the city of Buffalo, New York;
  • As the verb to buffalo, meaning (in American English[1]) "to bully, harass, or intimidate" or "to baffle"; and
  • As a noun to refer to the animal the buffalo (often called bison outside of North America). The plural is also buffalo.

A semantically equivalent form preserving the original word order is: "Buffalonian bison that other Buffalonian bison bully also bully Buffalonian bison."

Sentence construction

 
Reed–Kellogg diagram of the sentence

The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word "buffalo". In order of their first use, these are:

  • a. a city named Buffalo. This is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence;
  • n. the noun buffalo, an animal, in the plural (equivalent to "buffaloes" or "buffalos"), in order to avoid articles.
  • v. the verb "buffalo" meaning to outwit, confuse, deceive, intimidate, or baffle.

The sentence is syntactically ambiguous; one possible parse (marking each "buffalo" with its part of speech as shown above) is as follows:

     Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

When grouped syntactically, this is equivalent to: [(Buffalonian bison) (Buffalonian bison intimidate)] intimidate (Buffalonian bison).

Because the sentence has a restrictive clause, there can be no commas. The relative pronouns "which" or "that" could appear between the second and third words of the sentence, as in Buffalo buffalo that Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo; when this pronoun is omitted, the relative clause becomes a reduced relative clause.

An expanded form of the sentence that preserves the original word order is: "Buffalo bison that other Buffalo bison bully also bully Buffalo bison."

Thus, the parsed sentence claims that bison who are intimidated or bullied by bison do themselves intimidate or bully bison (at least in the city of Buffalo – implicitly, Buffalo, New York):

  1. Buffalo buffalo (animals called "buffalo" from the city of Buffalo) [that] Buffalo buffalo buffalo (that the same kind of animals from the city bully) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (bully these animals from that city).
  2. [Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.
  3. Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community in turn intimidate other bison in their community.
  4. The buffalo from Buffalo who are buffaloed by buffalo from Buffalo buffalo (verb) other buffalo from Buffalo.
  5. Buffalo buffalo (main clause subject) [that] Buffalo buffalo (subordinate clause subject) buffalo (subordinate clause verb) in turn buffalo (main clause verb) Buffalo buffalo (main clause direct object).
  6. Buffalo from Buffalo [that] buffalo [from] Buffalo buffalo [in turn] buffalo buffalo [from] Buffalo.
 
A diagram explaining the sentence
 
Diagram using a comparison to explain the buffalo sentence

Usage

Thomas Tymoczko has pointed out that there is nothing special about eight "buffalos";[2] any sentence consisting solely of the word "buffalo" repeated any number of times is grammatically correct. The shortest is "Buffalo!", which can be taken as a verbal imperative instruction to bully someone ("[You,] buffalo!") with the implied subject "you" removed,[3]: 99–100, 104 ; or, as a noun exclamation, expressing e.g. that a buffalo has been sighted, or as an adjectival exclamation, e.g. as a response to the question, "where are you from?" Tymoczko uses the sentence as an example illustrating rewrite rules in linguistics.[3]: 104–105 

Origin

The idea that one can construct a grammatically correct sentence consisting of nothing but repetitions of "buffalo" was independently discovered several times in the 20th century. The earliest known written example, "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo", appears in the original manuscript for Dmitri Borgmann's 1965 book Language on Vacation, though the chapter containing it was omitted from the published version.[4] Borgmann recycled some of the material from this chapter, including the "buffalo" sentence, in his 1967 book, Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought.[5]: 290  In 1972, William J. Rapaport, then a graduate student at Indiana University, came up with versions containing five and ten instances of "buffalo".[6] He later used both versions in his teaching, and in 1992 posted them to the LINGUIST List.[6][7] A sentence with eight consecutive buffalos is featured in Steven Pinker's 1994 book The Language Instinct as an example of a sentence that is "seemingly nonsensical" but grammatical. Pinker names his student, Annie Senghas, as the inventor of the sentence.[8]: 210 

Neither Rapaport, Pinker, nor Senghas were initially aware of the earlier coinages.[6] Pinker learned of Rapaport's earlier example only in 1994, and Rapaport was not informed of Borgmann's sentence until 2006.[6]

Versions of this linguistic oddity can be constructed with other words which similarly simultaneously serve as collective noun, adjective, and verb, some of which need no capitalization (such as "police").[9]

See also

General:

Other linguistically complex sentences:

References

  1. ^
    • "buffalo (verb) in American English". Macmillan Dictionary. Retrieved 29 May 2021.
    • Oxford University Press. "Definition of buffalo". Lexico. Archived from the original on 2 June 2021. Retrieved 29 May 2021.
  2. ^ Henle, James; Garfield, Jay; Tymoczko, Thomas (2011). Sweet Reason: A Field Guide to Modern Logic. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-1118078631.
  3. ^ a b Thomas Tymoczko; James M. Henle (2000). Sweet reason: a field guide to modern logic (2 ed.). Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-0-387-98930-3. Archived from the original on 22 April 2020. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  4. ^ Eckler, A. Ross Jr. (November 2005). "The Borgmann Apocrypha". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. 38 (4): 258–260. Archived from the original on 1 November 2014. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
  5. ^ Borgmann, Dmitri A. (1967). Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. OCLC 655067975.
  6. ^ a b c d Rapaport, William J. (5 October 2012). "A History of the Sentence 'Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.'". University at Buffalo Computer Science and Engineering. Archived from the original on 21 June 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
  7. ^ Rapaport, William J. (19 February 1992). "Message 1: Re: 3.154 Parsing Challenges". LINGUIST List. Archived from the original on 19 October 2009. Retrieved 14 September 2006.
  8. ^ Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
  9. ^ Gärtner, Hans-Martin (2002). Generalized Transformations and Beyond. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. p. 58. ISBN 978-3050032467.

External links

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