An Obstinacy of Buffalo Buffalo

Some Linguistic Ramblings

If you study linguistics on a casual level, you may have previously encountered this sentence:

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

American bison k5680-1.jpg

This is, in fact, a fully grammatical English sentence—and without any punctuation, at that. (Although the capitalization is mandatory.) It even has its own Wikipedia article. This may sound ridiculous, but it works based on the multiple meanings of the word “buffalo.” “Buffalo” usually refers to the animal[1], but it can also mean the city in upstate New York. Thus, a “Buffalo buffalo” is a buffalo from Buffalo, New York. Meanwhile, “buffalo” can also be used as a verb. Depending on the context, it can mean “to bully” (which makes sense; it’s based on a similar animal), and it can also mean “to baffle” (which also kind of makes sense based on similar sounds).

To make sense of the whole sentence, we need to look as the usage of each copy of the word:

Buffalo1 buffalo2 Buffalo3 buffalo4 buffalo5 buffalo6 Buffalo7 buffalo8.

To make this actually intelligible, we need to rearrange the sentence and add a few non-buffalo words. This is my best effort at making it unambiguous.

Buffalo2 from Buffalo1 whom other buffalo4 from Buffalo3 buffalo5 themselves buffalo6 still other buffalo8 from Buffalo7.

I think this clears it up, at least if you’ve got your who/whom straight.

So, this is a fun linguistic exercise…but the thing is…this has always felt like cheating to me.

I mean, it’s not cheating. It is grammatical English, but it feels like it works on a technicality. It’s supposed to illustrate how you can generate weird, complex, and ambiguous sentences in English by mixing different meanings of words. But it feels like a bad example to me because you actually can’t do that in English in the vast majority of circumstances. Not for the average English speaker, anyway.

For one, it relies on Buffalo being a proper name. Like in Scrabble, I’m not sure if that should even count. That’s not how English works; it’s just how names work. If I got some friends together and went out to Wyoming to found a little village, we could name it anything we wanted like “Bream” (see below) and create a new (meaning of a) word to use in one of these sentences. You can create new words in English; it happens all the time, but it ought to be a little more involved than putting up a sign.

Second, the example relies on an extremely obscure use of the word “buffalo” as a verb. Yes, it is a real word but it feels like it shouldn’t count an example to represent the language as a whole because it’s not something you’ll find in a normal person’s vocabulary. As in, I think I have literally never heard the word “buffalo” used as a verb outside of the context of this exact example.

Except, this is wrong. It turns out, I have. And you probably have, too:

It’s in The Wizard of Oz, one of the most famous movies of all time! Apparently, this usage of “buffalo” was fairly common in the early 20th century, so it’s not extremely obscure so much it’s extremely dated.

(As an aside while I was researching this post, I saw that the verb form of “buffalo” is also beginning to take on a new meaning for food: “to prepare with buffalo sauce.”)

Okay, so it’s not that obscure, and even without the proper name, it’s possible to construct the sentence with the word repeated five times: “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo,” which is the same thing except we’re not in Buffalo anymore, Toto. But surely, this is still well outside of standard English. You never hear sentences like this in real life. Are there any other examples at all?

Well, they aren’t used in practice, and for good reason, but you can create other sentences in English that repeat the same word five times in a row, using the same reciprocal logic. It’s not easy. I failed to come up with any examples on my own (although I wasn’t looking that hard), but other people have pointed out a few. The trick is that it requires two irregular forms: a plural noun (which usually ends with ‘s’ in English) that is also the plural form of a verb (which usually does not end with an ‘s’ in English, as the ‘s’ marks the 3rd-person singular). This is uncommon, but there are a few other examples, several of which are less obscure than “buffalo.” Examples I’ve seen include:

  • Dice (marked cubes rolled in games, and to chop into small cubes)
  • Fish (the animal, and to catch fish)
  • Smelt (a type of fish, and the past tense of to smell—also to refine ore in a furnace, which is still grammatical, but nonsensical)
  • Bream (another type of fish, and to clean a ship’s bottom by heating and scraping)
  • Cod (What’s with all the fish? Also British slang for to trick, hoax, or fool.)
  • Right (This is a real stretch. The only way I can think of for “right” to be a plural form is as shorthand for “the Right Wing,” but I feel like it’s being used more as a mass noun in that context.)

And finally, the one that (along with “fish”) is by far the least obscure usage and also the only one involving actions that are physically possible… “police.”

Police police police police police.

Police whom other police police themselves police still other police.

Insert your own Watchmen joke here.

[1] Yes, I know it’s a bison. In America, we call it a buffalo.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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1 Response to An Obstinacy of Buffalo Buffalo

  1. The obvious one word sentence is swearing f’ing f’er f’ing f’ed: inset ‘uck’ and add as many f+ as necessary for taste.

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