Thursday, May 26, 2011
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffaloBuffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is a grammatically correct sentence used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated constructs. It has been discussed in the literature since 1972 when the sentence was used by William J. Rapaport, currently 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. Sentences of this type, although not in such a refined form, have been known for a long time. A classic example is the proverb “Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you”.
The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word “buffalo”. In order of their first use, these are
- c. The city of Buffalo, New York;
- a. The animal buffalo, in the plural (equivalent to “buffaloes”), 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
- Buffaloc buffaloa Buffaloc buffaloa buffalov buffalov Buffaloc buffaloa.
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) [that] (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 upstate New York who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.
It may be revealing to read the sentence replacing all instances of the animal buffalo with “people” and the verb buffalo with “intimidate”. The sentence then reads
- “Buffalo people [that] Buffalo people intimidate [also happen to] intimidate Buffalo people.”
Did you get that?