Tuesday, September 19, 2006

To Buffalo

This morning, the righteous Dina sent me a link to the Wikipedia page for a certain linguistic parlor trick. “I'm sure you've seen this and probably blogged about it, but it makes
me happy, and I would like to share,” she said. In fact I had not heard of this, but Dina nailed it on the head when she decided it was something worth sharing.

Generally credited to William J. Rapaport, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, the following sentence is grammatically correct, at least in a technical sense.
“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”
Technically correct, of course, is the best kind of correct. It describes the social hierarchy of buffalos at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York. It employs three definitions for the word “buffalo”: the animal, the place and the verb meaning “to intimidate.” (Also, I should note that this is one verb I neglected to list in the post regarding animal name verbs, “Don’t Make Me Platypus All Over You.”) Translated into easier words, the sentence is trying to relate the fact that some buffaloes from the Buffalo Zoo that other buffaloes intimidate themselves also like to intimidate a third group of buffaloes in the zoo. Initially the sentence was problematic to me, even with the explanation. I kept feeling that any way I read it, the sentence omitted a crucial “that” whose presence grammar demanded.

In my mind, the sentence should have either read
Buffalo buffalo that buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo that buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Then i realized I was leaving out one "buffalo." Furthermore, neither of these interpretations really express what the sentence should, however, and I had to read the Wikipedia’s explanation of it several times in order to get it. Even still, the correct interpretation fades out of my head the instant I avert my attention to anything else, kind of like how you can work to see the alternate interpretation in an optical illusion, but then revert back to the initial image if you stop concentrating and then have to work back to the secondary one. A major clue is which words are capitalized, as you can tell those words have to be the city, excluding the first one, of course.
To explain, I’m going to employ so font modifications. In the below sentence the bold buffalo represents the city name, the italicized buffalo represents the animal and the plain one represents the verb.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
This, to me, is the easiest way to parse the sentence. Think of every "Buffalo buffalo," with the capitalized one followed by the lower-case one, as "a group of buffalos from the city Buffalo." With that, you have
Various buffalo at the Buffalo zoo that other buffalo at the same zoo tend to intimidate in turn go and treat this third group of buffalo at the zoo in a similar way.
[One group of] Buffalo buffalo [that other] Buffalo buffalo [tend to] buffalo [themselves] buffalo [other] Buffalo buffalo.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
It's like making algebra out of grammar, which you'd think I hate but apparently don't. Still, I can't believe I've typed the word "buffalo" this many times. Likely, more than a lot of people have in their lives, rather than Buffalo Bill. I can no longer even look at the word "buffalo" without thinking that it now looks wrong, just by virtue of me having stared at it for so long and noticing how weird it is.

The Wikipedia article also suggest others, including "Badgers badgers badger badger badgers." but I don't even want to attempt delving into those today. All of them, however, are what is known as "garden path sentences" — that is, a sentence you can't correctly understand without doubling back and re-reading. "The horse raced past the barn fell," for another example, in case your head doesn't hurt like mine.

And it's with no small sense of humor that I note "buffalo" can also mean "to confuse." Seriously, who thought "buffalo" was suitable to being a real word, anyway?
[ link: Wikipedia on "garden path sentences" ]


  1. Get out of my head. This crossed my path just the other day and hurt me deeply in the core. I like prepositions. Buffalos do not.

  2. My eyes started hurting after awhile trying to read that page, but I'm intrigued.

  3. I've actually been to Buffalo, which the more I think about it, does not make me feel any better about the 10 minutes of my life you just took away.