“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” is a grammatically valid sentence in the English language, used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. It has been discussed in literature since 1972 when the sentence was used by William J. Rapaport, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo. It was posted to Linguist List by Rapaport in 1992. It was also featured in Steven Pinker‘s 1994 book The Language Instinct.
- a. the city of Buffalo, New York , which is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence and is followed by the animal;
- 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 bully, confuse, deceive, or intimidate.
Marking each “buffalo” with its use as shown above gives you:
- Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.
Thus, the sentence when parsed reads as a description of the pecking order in the social hierarchy of buffaloes living in Buffalo:
- [Those] (Buffalo buffalo) [whom] (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo, buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).
- [Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.
- Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.
- THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo.
“Buffalo buffalo (main clause Subject) [which the] Buffalo buffalo (subordinate clause Direct Object) buffalo [subordinate clause Verb] buffalo [main clause Verb] Buffalo buffalo [main clause Direct Object].”
The sentence can be clarified by substituting the synonym “bison” for the animal “buffalo” and “bully” for the verb “buffalo”, leaving “Buffalo” to refer to the city:
- ‘Buffalo bison Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison’, or:
- ‘Buffalo bison whom other Buffalo bison bully, themselves bully Buffalo bison’.
Removing the classifier noun “Buffalo” (the city) further clarifies the sentence (note that the initial capital is retained as the common noun “buffalo” now starts the sentence):
- ‘Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.’
- ‘Bison [that other] bison bully [also] bully bison.’
If the capitalization is ignored, the sentence can be read another way:
- Buffaloa buffalon buffalov Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov.
That is, bison from Buffalo intimidate (other) bison from Buffalo that bison from Buffalo intimidate.
Other than the confusion caused by the homophones, the sentence is difficult to parse for several reasons:
- The use of “buffalo” as a verb is not particularly common and itself has several meanings.
- The construction in the plural makes the verb “buffalo”, like the city, rather than “buffaloes”.
- The choice of “buffalo” rather than “buffaloes” as the plural form of the noun makes it identical to the verb.
- There are no grammatical cues from syntactically significant words such as articles (again possible because of the plural construction) or the relative pronoun “that”.
- The absence of punctuation makes it difficult to read the flow of the sentence.
- Consequently, it is a garden path sentence, i.e., it cannot be parsed by reading one word at a time without backtracking.
- The statement includes a universal predicate about a class and also introduces a later class (the buffalo that are intimidated by intimidated buffalo) that may, but need not, be distinct from the first class.
- Parsing is ambiguous if capitalization is ignored. Using another adjectival sense of ‘buffalo’ (‘cunning’, derived from the sense ‘to confuse’), the following alternative parsing is obtained: ‘Buffalo bison [that] bison bully, [also happen to] bully cunning Buffalo bison’ (that is, the head of the verb phrase occurs one ‘buffalo’ earlier).
- The relative clause is center embedded, a construction which is hard to parse.
- The sentence lacks an overt complementizer such as “that” which would aid in comprehending the embedded relative clause.
There is nothing special about eight “buffalo”s; indeed, a sentence with “buffalo” repeated any number of times is grammatically correct (according to Chomskyan theories of grammar). The shortest is ‘Buffalo!’, meaning either ‘Bully (someone)!’, or ‘Look, there are buffalo here!’, or ‘Behold, it is the city of Buffalo!’.
Other English words can be used to make grammatical (but not necessarily meaningful) sentences of this form, containing endless consecutive repetitions. Any word that is both an animate plural noun and a transitive verb will work. Other words which can be used in this manner include police, smelt, char, people and bream.
A somewhat similar un-punctuated example is “James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher“. This could concern a situation in an English class regarding the usage of the word had, and might be punctuated as, “James, while John had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had a better effect on the teacher.”
- James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher
- That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is
- Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
- Malo malo malo malo
- List of linguistic example sentences
- Semantic satiation
- ^ Rapaport, William J. 22 September 2006. “A History of the Sentence “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”“. Accessed 23 September 2006. (archived copy)
- ^ Rapaport, William J. 19 February 1992. “Message 1: Re: 3.154 Parsing Challenges“. Accessed 14 September 2006.
- ^ Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1994. p. 210
- ^ Thomas Tymoczko; James M. Henle (2000), Sweet reason: a field guide to modern logic (2 ed.), Birkhäuser, pp. 99–100, ISBN 9780387989303, http://books.google.com/books?id=LQnsSuvP9dAC&pg=PA99
- “Buffaloing buffalo” at Language Log, 20 January 2005
- Easdown, David. Teaching mathematics: the gulf between semantics (meaning) and syntax (form)PDF (273 KiB)
- The Emory Wheel, Andrew Swerlick What a Herd of Confused Bison from Upstate New York Can Teach Us About Our Difficulties With the English Language
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