Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a grammatically correct sentence in American English, used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. 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.
The sentence uses three distinct meanings of the word buffalo: the city of Buffalo, New York; the uncommon verb to buffalo, meaning "to bully, harass,or intimidate" or "to baffle"; and the animal, bison (often called buffalo in North America). The sentence can be phrased differently as "Those buffalo(es) from Buffalo that are intimidated by buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo."
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The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word "buffalo". In order of their first use, these are:
- a. the city of Buffalo, New York, United States, which is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence and is followed by the animal;
- n. the noun buffalo (American bison), 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; however, one possible parse (marking each "buffalo" with its part of speech as shown above) would be as follows:
- Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.
The sentence uses a restrictive clause, so there are no commas, nor is there the word "which," as in, "Buffalo buffalo, which Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo." This clause is also a reduced relative clause, so the word that, which could appear between the second and third words of the sentence, is omitted.
Thus, the parsed sentence reads as a claim that bison who are intimidated or bullied by bison are themselves intimidating or bullying bison (at least in the city of Buffalo – implicitly, Buffalo, NY):
- Buffalo buffalo (the animals called "buffalo" from the city of Buffalo) [that] Buffalo buffalo buffalo (that the animals from the city bully) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (are bullying these animals from that city).
- [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, buffalo (verb) other buffalo from Buffalo.
- Buffalo buffalo (main clause subject) [that] Buffalo buffalo (subordinate clause subject) buffalo (subordinate clause verb) buffalo (main clause verb) Buffalo buffalo (main clause direct object).
- [Buffalo from Buffalo] that [buffalo from Buffalo] buffalo, also buffalo [buffalo from Buffalo].
Thomas Tymoczko has pointed out that there is nothing special about eight "buffalos"; 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 an imperative instruction to bully someone ("[You] buffalo!") with the implied subject "you" removed.:99–100, 104 Tymoczko uses the sentence as an example illustrating rewrite rules in linguistics.:104–105
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. Borgmann recycled some of the material from this chapter, including the "buffalo" sentence, in his 1967 book, Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought.:290 In 1972, William J. Rapaport, now a professor at the University at Buffalo but then a graduate student at Indiana University, came up with versions containing five and ten instances of "buffalo". He later used both versions in his teaching, and in 1992 posted them to the LINGUIST List. A sentence with eight consecutive "buffalo"s 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.:210
Neither Rapaport, Pinker, nor Senghas were initially aware of the earlier coinages. Pinker learned of Rapaport's earlier example only in 1994, and Rapaport was not informed of Borgmann's sentence until 2006. Even Borgmann's example may not be the oldest: computational linguist Robert C. Berwick, who used a five-"buffalo" version in a 1987 book,:100 claims he had heard the sentence as a child ("before 1972, to be sure") and had assumed it was part of common parlance.
Versions of the 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").
- List of linguistic example sentences
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves
- James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher
- Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
- That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is
- Semantic satiation
- Neko no ko koneko, shishi no ko kojishi
- Higgins, Chris (11 March 2008). "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo". Mental Floss.
- Thomas Tymoczko; James M. Henle (2000). Sweet reason: a field guide to modern logic (2 ed.). Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-0-387-98930-3.
- Eckler, Jr., A. Ross (November 2005). "The Borgmann Apocrypha". Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. 38 (4): 258–260.
- Borgmann, Dmitri A. (1967). Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought. New York, NY, USA: Charles Scribner's Sons. OCLC 655067975.
- Rapaport, William J. (5 October 2012). "A History of the Sentence 'Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.'". University at Buffalo Computer Science and Engineering. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
- Rapaport, William J. (19 February 1992). "Message 1: Re: 3.154 Parsing Challenges". LINGUIST List. Retrieved 14 September 2006.
- Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY, USA: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
- Barton, G. Edward, Jr.; Berwick, Robert C.; Ristad, Eric Sven (1987). Computational Complexity and Natural Language. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
- Gärtner, Hans-Martin (2002). Generalized Transformations and Beyond. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. p. 58. ISBN 978-3050032467.
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