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"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 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 (or any other place named "Buffalo"), which is used as an adjective in the sentence and is followed by the animal;
- a. The animal buffalo, in the plural (equivalent to "buffaloes"), in order to avoid articles (a noun);
- 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.
- [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.
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 [whom] Buffalo people intimidate [also happen to] intimidate Buffalo people."
Preserving the meaning more closely, substituting the synonym "bison" for "buffalo" (animal), "bully" for "buffalo" (verb) and leaving "Buffalo" to mean the city, yields
- 'Buffalo bison Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison', or:
- 'Buffalo bison whom other Buffalo bison bully themselves bully Buffalo bison'.
To Further understand the structure of the sentence, one can replace "Buffalo buffalo" with any number of noun phrases. Rather than referring to "Buffalo buffalo" intimidating other "Buffalo buffalo", one can use noun phrases like "Alley cats", "Junkyard dogs", and "Sewer rats". The sentence then reads
- "Alley cats Junkyard dogs intimidate intimidate Sewer rats."
This has the same sentence structure and meaning as 'Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo'.
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 "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.
It can be extended to
- Buffaloc buffaloa Buffaloc buffaloa buffalov buffalov Buffaloc buffaloa Buffaloc buffaloa buffalov
...in which the subject and object of the central verb 'balance'.
Indeed, for any n ≥ 1, the sentence buffalon 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, the city of Buffalo!'
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- List of linguistic example sentences
- 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.
- Tom Tymoczko and Jim Henle, Sweet Reason: A Field Guide to Modern Logic, 2004, pages 99-100.
- "Buffaloing buffalo" at Language Log, 20 January 2005
- Easdown, David. Template:PDF .
- The Emory Wheel, Andrew Swerlick What a Herd of Confused Bison from Upstate New York Can Teach Us About Our Difficulties With the English Languagede:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
la:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo pl:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo pt:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo sv:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo th:Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo