Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Can a Sentence have a One-Track Mind?

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

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"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." is a grammatically valid sentence used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated constructs. It has been known to exist since 1972 when the sentence was used by William J. Rapaport, currently an associate professor at the University at Buffalo.[1] It was posted to Linguist List by Rapaport in 1992.[2] 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 classical example is a proverb "Don't trouble trouble until trouble troubles you".

Sentence construction

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

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 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 turns into 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 intimated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.
Buffalos that are themselves intimated by buffalo in their community then intimidate buffalo also in their community.

It may help to consider the following sentence, which has the same grammatical structure as the original.

Many things many people say confuse many people.

It may also be revealing to read the sentence replacing all instances of Buffalo the animal with "people" and the verb buffalo with "intimdiate." The sentence then reads:

"Buffalo people [that] Buffalo [people] intimidate intimidate Buffalo people."

Other than the confusion caused by the homophones, the sentence is difficult to parse for several reasons:

  1. The use of "buffalo" as a verb is not particularly common and itself has several meanings.
  2. The construction in the plural makes the verb "buffalo", like the city, rather than "buffaloes".
  3. The choice of "buffalo" rather than "buffaloes" as the plural form of the noun makes it identical to the verb.
  4. There are no grammatical cues from syntactically significant words such as articles (again possible because of the plural construction) or "that".
  5. The absence of punctuation makes it difficult to read the flow of the sentence.
  6. Consequently, it is a garden path sentence, i.e., it cannot be parsed by reading one word at a time without backtracking.
  7. 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.

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 grammatical,[3] the shortest, 'buffalo!', meaning either 'bully (someone)!', 'look, there are buffalo, here!' or 'you mean all this fancy language talk is all about my home town of Buffalo!'.

Similar examples


  • Badgers badgers badger badger badgers, by Boris Johnson in Have I Got News For You[4]
  • Dogs dogs dog dog dogs[2]
  • Who polices the police? - The police police. So, who polices the police police? Police police police police police police. (see Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)
  • A joke, in which a conductor, when asked how long will the train stay at the station, answered "From two to two to two two" (from 2 minutes to 2 O'clock, to 2 minutes past 2 O'clock). When asked the same question about a second train that will be at the station for the same period, he answered "From two to two to two two, too".
  • "I wonder whether the wether will weather the weather, or whether the weather the wether will kill" is a similar nature-related expression used to teach about homophones and syntax.[5]
  • "Wouldn't the sentence 'I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign' have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, and after Chips?" (This is also an example of the use-mention distinction.)

Had had had

The linguistic folklore has several examples involving the verb "had" They are considered to be part of professional humor of linguists and included in many English language primers for foreigners for adding some amusement to the tedious work of language learning.

  • The last boss she had had had had enough of her.
  • John, where Bill had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had the teacher's approval.
  • Tom, when playing a game of Scrabble against Dick who, whilst pondering the degree of legitimacy the last word that Harry (who had had 'had') had had had had, had had 'had', had had 'had'. Had 'had' had more letters, he would have played it again.

And some more gems from other languages:

Other languages

Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma?
Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma?
  • In Serbo-Croatian, the sentence "Gore gore gore gore" ("Горе горе горе горе"), means "up there the hills are burning worse" (however, the words have different accents).
  • In Catalan, "Cap cap cap" means "no head enters". A longer form is "En cap cap cap el que cap en aquest cap" that means "in no head enters what enters in this head".
  • Chinese:
  • in Cantonese, the phrase "gò go gó gò gòu gwó gò go gó gò" (in Yale romanization) means "That older brother is taller than that older brother".
  • In Mandarin Chinese, "Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma" means "Does Mother scold horses or do horses scold Mother?"[6] However, Mandarin is a tonal language, so the words above are not true homophones.[7] This sentence is used as an exercise to show the contrastive nature of Chinese tones and practice their correct realizations.[6] A similar example is Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, in which shi is repeated with varying intonations.
  • In Dutch, "Als In Bergen, bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen." Roughly meaning: "If in Bergen, heaps of mountains salvage heaps of mountains, then heaps of mountains salvage heaps of mountains".
  • In Dutch, "Als achter vliegen vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegen achterna" If flies fly behind flies, then flies fly behind flies.".
  • In Filipino the interrogative sentence "Bababa ba?", which is translated to English as "(is someone) Going down?", is used when a driver asks his passengers if they intend to go out of the vehicle. An extension is the following exchange in an elevator: "Baba, bababa ba?" "Bababa." "Ba, bababa!" which means: "Baba (proper name), (is this elevator) going down?" "(Yes, it is) going down." "Oh! (amazed) So it's going down!")
  • In Finnish, "Kokoa kokoon koko kokko. Koko kokkoko? Koko kokko." means "Build a up the whole bonfire. Whole bonfire? Whole bonfire." Another sentence is "Piilevät piilevät piileviä piileviä piilevissä piilevissä"[citation needed]. Also, "Tuu kattoon kattoon kun kärpänen tapettiin tapettiin" (dialectal), meaning "Come to the ceiling to take a look at a fly that was killed on the wallpaper". "Etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivät", meaning "Investigators search for investigators that search for investigators".
  • In French : "Si ton tonton tond ton tonton, ton tonton tondu sera." Which gives literally: If your uncle shaves your uncle, your uncle shaved will be.
    • Also in French: "Si six scies scient six cyprès, six cents scies scient six cents cyprès." Which translates to: "If six saws saw six cypress trees, six hundred saws saw six hundred cypress trees." (Si, six, scies, scient, and the first syllable of cyprès are all pronounced more or less the same in French - similar to the English "see".)
  • In German, "Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach" means "If flies fly after flies, flies fly behind flies."
  • In Swiss German, "Da da da? Da da da. Da da da da!". A conversation between two women from Schleitheim on a train discussing whether a toddler is allowed to lick the windowpane: "He's allowed to do that?" "He can do that." "That you let him do that!". (In German: "Darf das [Kind] das [tun]?" "Das [Kind] darf das [tun]." "Daß das [Kind] das [tun] darf!")
  • In Hebrew, אשה נעלה נעלה נעלה נעלה את הדלת בפני בעלה (Isha na'ala na'ala na'ala na'ala et hadelet bifnei ba'ala) means "A respectable woman put on her shoe, locked the door in front of her husband". 'נעל' (na'al) means 'put on (footwear)' and hence also 'shoe', but also means 'lock'. 'עלה' ('alah') means 'raise', from which the niphal 'נעלה' means 'exalted' or 'noble'.
  • In Irish Tá leis-leis leis leis leis leis. A subidiary [leis-] thigh [leis] of its/his [leis i.e with him, belonging to him] has been stripped [tá ... leis] by him [leis] also [leis]. There are two people or animals being referred to.
  • In Japanese, "Uraniwa niwa niwa niwa niwa niwa niwatori ga iru." (There are two chickens in the back yard and two in the front yard.) is a well-known tongue-twister.[8]
  • In a Korean dialect, "Gaga gaga ga ga?" means "Is that person (first gaga) Ga family's (second gaga) member (first ga) ? (last ga indicates it is a question)".
  • In Latin, "Malo malo malo malo" means "I'd rather be in an apple tree than a bad man in adversity." In "Latin ...For Dummies", a similarly constructed sentence is found, though not of homonyms, but is very close and is made more difficult by the non-use of spaces between words in early Latin texts: Miminumiumnibiumminimimuniumnimiumbunimuniminumimminuibibiminimumbolunt; which tranlates to "The tiny mimes of the snow spirits in no way wish, while they are alive, the tremendous task of [serving] the wine of the defenses to be diminished."
  • In Malay lovers can say "Sayang, sayang, sayang sayang sayang. Sayang sayang sayang?", which translates to "Darling, I love you. Do you love me?". This is a true homophone as the same word is used for pronoun and verb. The person being asked can even reply "Sayang", or "Sayang sayang sayang", in return.
  • In Norwegian, the sentence "Avstanden mellom Ole og og og og og Kari har økt", meaning roughly "The distance between Ole and 'and' and 'and' and Kari has been increased.", could be uttered to explain that three words on a sign ("Kari og Ole") have been moved further away from each other.
  • In Papiamento, "No ta Tatata ta tata di Tatata, sino ta tata di Tatata su tata ta tata di Tatata". Rougly meaning: "It's not Tatata who's the father of Tatata, but the father of Tatata's father is the father of Tatata."
  • In Persian, the word جعفر in "جعفري ديدم كه بر جعفر سوار، جعفري مي خورد و از جعفر گذشت" has four different meanings. It's pronounced as "Jaffar" and is used to mean 1. name of a person, 2. an animal, 3. some kind of vegetable 4. a it says, "I saw a jaffar, riding a jaffar, eating jaffar, passing jaffar" and in Farsi it rhymes.
  • In Portuguese, the sentence "Pó pô pó? Pó pô" means "Can I put powder?Yes, you can" - "Pó" is a short word for "Pode" (Can), "pô" stands for "pôr" (put) and "pó" means powder. The answer is an affirmative sentence and "Pó" now means "Pode" (Can).
  • In Russian, a well-known brainteaser is the task to fragment the following sequence into words to make a meaningful text: "kolokolokolokola" (Answer: "kol okolo kolokola", meaning "the stake (is) near the bell", or "kolokol okolo kola", meaning "the bell (is) near the stake", or "kol, o, kol okolo kola", meaning "The stake, oh, the stake near (another) stake")
  • In Spanish - "¿Cómo cómo como? ¡Como como como!" means ¿Qué quieres decir con 'cómo me alimento'? ¡Yo como como yo como! or "What do you mean 'how do I eat'? I eat how I eat!", provided the correct emphasis on each como.
  • In Spanish - "¡Papá! Papa pa Papa, papá." means "Dad! This potato is for the Pope, father." The pa is used as a short form of para (for/to).
  • A short story by Robert Sheckley Shall We Have a Little Talk? (a 1965 Nebula Award for Best Novelette) describes a planet where language mutates so fast that an Earthman colonizer cannot catch up with it: the yesterday's version he learned overnight hypnopaedically, tomorrow is no longer in use. The Earthman accepted his defeat when he was addressed thusly: Mun mun-mun-mun. Mun mun mun; mun mun mun; mun mun. Mun, mun mun mun--mun mun mun. Mun-mun? Mun mun mun mun!.
  • In Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, "Far, får får får? Får får lamm!" which translates to "Daddy, do sheep give birth to sheep? (No,) sheep give birth to lambs!" Extended variant is: "Får får får? Nej, får får ej får för får får lamm."
  • In colloquial Swedish, "Nallar nallar nallars nallar?" which translates to "Do teddy bears steal (other) teddy bears' teddy bears?"
  • Tamil, in the 12th couplet of the Thirukkural, it says, "Thuppaarkkuth thuppaaya thuppaakkith thuppaarkkuth thuppaaya thuuvum mazhai". Roughly translated into English as "The rain begets the food we eat; And forms a food and drink concrete". Many such couplets (with homophones) are found in this literary work.
  • In Thai, "Mai mai mai mai, mai." While, due to the tonal nature of the Thai language, each "mai" is pronounced differently, this is a complete sentence. The translation is something like, "New wood doesn't burn, does it?" The canonical answer is "Mai mai mai mai," again intoning each mai differently, which means "New wood doesn't burn." Word for word, the question is translated "Wood new not burn " and the reply is "Wood new not burn."
  • In Turkish, "'Müdür müdür müdür' müdür?" means "'Is the manager [really] the manager?', is that the question we are discussing?". Also in Turkish, "Yüzeyden yüze yüze, yüz yüze yüzleşmiş yüz yüzü yüz." means "Skin hundred faces that are facing each other as you are swimming above the water."
  • In Broad Scots Doric dialect (Scotland), " Fit fit fits fit fit?" can be more easily understood if you imagine a Buckie fisherman in a shoe shop looking in a puzzled manner at a pair of shoes and asking: "What foot fits what foot?" i.e. "Which shoe fits which foot?"

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