"Buffalo" is a solution to the following problem:

What English word can be repeated an arbitrary number of times to form a grammatically and semantically meaningful English sentence?

Buffalo has two meanings which are sufficient to solve the problem (though Webster 1913 only lists one: first, the common noun, meaning a large mammal, and second, a transitive verb, meaning to intimidate or to coerce. For the sake of clarity, in the following example sentences I will substitue the word bison for the animal and use buffalo exclusively as a verb.

This is a proof by induction. I will give examples of setences of length 1-3 and then give a description of how to take a sentence of length >= 3 (where length is an odd number) and form sentences of lengths length + 1 and length + 2

Length 1: "Buffalo!" is an imperative exclamation using the infinitive form of the verb.

Length 2: "Bison buffalo." is an existential statement that asserts that large four-legged mammals intimidate or coerce. (note that I will not promise that all of these sentences are, in fact, true, only that they are intelligible.

Length 3: "Bison buffalo bison." is an extension of our length 2 sentence that quantifies who the recipient of the coersion or intimidation is.

Length 4: "Bison bison buffalo buffalo." is the trickiest sentence to interpret. "Bison bison buffalo" is a noun phrase meaning, roughly, "The animals who are intimidated by other animals", and our sentence asserts that those intimidated animals are also guilty of intimidating (though just who they intimidate is not clear).

Length 5: "Bison bison buffalo buffalo bison." is the natural extension of our length 4 sentence, adding a direct object to the verb we added at the end of the last sentence.

So now we can create longer sentences by moving the direct object to the beginning of the sentence, creating a noun phrase ("The bison whom bison who bison buffalo buffalo...") and adding a verb to the end to make a sentence of length + 1, or adding a verb and a direct object to make a sentence of length + 2.

Please don't blame me if you get some strange stares from people when you tell them that buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Note: see also this node. There is some redundancy between that node and this one.

This is, surprisingly, a grammatically correct sentence.

It was conceived by William J. Rapaport, professor at the University of Buffalo, while an undergrad at Indiana University, and featured in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.

Buffalo buffalo (bison in Buffalo) Buffalo buffalo buffalo (who other Buffalo bison bully) buffalo (will bully) Buffalo buffalo (bison in Buffalo).

However, to make this clear, punctuation should be included:

Buffalo buffalo, Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Um... I think.

Rappaport explains it this way:

Then, of course, you can make it more interesting by considering the buffalo in the Buffalo zoo, the Buffalo buffalo. And their peculiar way of buffaloing other Buffalo buffalo, so peculiar that, like the Tennessee waltz which you do by Tennessee waltzing, they Buffalo buffalo those other Buffalo buffalo:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

TO see the original:
http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/3/3-175.html#1


WaldemarExkul noted to me:

Moreover, *any* number of consecutive instances of the word buffalo is a grammatical English sentence. ("Buffalo!" - 'Go out and bully (people/things)!' - "Buffalo buffalo!" - 'Bully bison!'; "Buffalo Buffalo buffalo!" - 'Bully bison from the city of Buffalo!'; "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo." - 'Bison from Buffalo bully bison.'; and so on and on...)

The buffalo of Buffalo are notorious for their buffaloing of other Buffalo buffalo. It's a self-perpetuating cycle of intimidation, so the Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo themselves buffalo Buffalo buffalo. It's tragic, really.

Hannah Werdmuller's wonderful London Zoo includes the line

'Do the buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo? And if so why can't they just get along?'

You might like to play this as a soundtrack while you read the rest of this writeup.

I first came across the Infinite Buffalo Effect in Steven Pinker's flawed but fascinating The Language Instinct*. It is actually possible to construct an arbitrarily long sentence in English using only the word buffalo**, even without involving the city in upstate New York; 'buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo,' for example, means 'the buffalo buffaloed by buffalo in turn buffalo other buffalo'. To buffalo is to overawe, bewilder or intimidate, so we could rewrite that as 'bison bison bewilder bewilder bison', which is only moderately difficult to parse. Similarly, "buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" means 'the buffalo buffaloed by buffaloes from Buffalo themselves buffalo the buffalo of Buffalo.' Do you see?

'Buffalo' is part of a small class of English words which can be both plural nouns and transitive verbs, and which in principle can be used (together or separately) to construct grammatically correct sentences of any length - although only some of them really make sense. See my Buffalo Generator for arbitrarily many examples of these in action. I'm going to attack these roughly in order of ascending plausibility:

  • Boar bore bore

    This one is perhaps cheating in that it is only a homophone, not a homograph - and in some accents, not even that. If we allow it, though, it has the bonus that we can choose between at least two different and grammatically distinct meanings. I bet that boar do bore boar - I'm sure I'd get sick of the company of pigs sooner or later - and of course, boar bear boar when they're pregnant.
  • Plaice place plaice

    Another homophone-only pairing. Plaice wouldn't normally place plaice, but maybe they would if they were lining up a school photo or something.
  • Fish fish fish

    To me, this is unconvincing: In my dialect of English, you can't just fish something without a preposition, you need to make it a phrasal verb. You might fish a dead body out when you are fishing in the lake for halibut, but if you said you were going to 'fish the creek', you'd be speaking a different kind of English from me. Nothing personal.
  • Bream bream bream

    It turns out that to bream is 'To clean, as a ship's bottom of adherent shells, seaweed, etc., by the application of fire and scraping.' I guess it's not impossible to imagine a world where bream do that to each other.
  • Char char char

    Similarly it's not too hard to see fishes of the genus Salvelinus scorching each other, given access to sufficiently powerful flamethrowers. Or laser beams. As far as I know this is the only Infinite Homonymic Sentence that is also a kind of dance.
  • Perch perch perch

    For perch to perch perch would require a degree of acrobatic imagination that perch are not known to possess, but at least it wouldn't call for any advanced weaponry to be specially modified for ichthyic use. Don't ask me why so many of these have to do with fish.
  • Dice dice dice

    I'm enjoying the image of knife-wielding dice chopping each other into ever-smaller cubes. I might make an animation of that, or possibly even a computer game.
  • Pants pants pants

    I doubt if any real pants have ever pantsed other pants, but if they did, that would be a pants thing to do. Only pants pants pants pants. This is one of only two words I know that are adjectives as well as transitive verbs and plural nouns. For anyone who is lost at this point, 'pants' as an adjective is a British colloquialism meaning 'rubbish'. The OED defines the verb as 'To pull down or remove the trousers (and sometimes underpants) of (a person), esp. as a practical joke.'
  • People people people

    Multiple personality disorder could be said to be an instance of people peopling people. Or those imitation people from Doctor Who which are actually live-in vehicles housing lots of little tiny humans.
  • Cod cod cod

    To cod someone is to hoax or parody them. I can totally see cod doing that. They're not as stupid as they look. I'll bow to wertperch's superior pescapsychological knowledge here though: 'Cod are actually much nicer than that', he informs me. 'Cod' is also an adjective meaning 'sham'. Meanwhile, the kodkod is a small wild cat found in parts of Chile and Argentina, like a tiny leopard. Even if cod wouldn't cod cod, I bet they'd cod a kodkod, given half a chance.
  • Smelt smelt smelt

    In British English, 'smelt' is the standard past tense of 'smell', and it's definitely true that salmonoid fishes of the genus Osmerus have smelled other smelt-fish. Fish often rely on their sense of smell, even though they don't have noses. It is also possible to imagine circumstances in which they might melt or fuse other smelt, perhaps because somebody has summoned an army of self-repairing fish-golems. In that case it would likely turn out that smelt smelt smelt smelt smelt: Smelt-fish smelled by smelt-fish meld smelt-fish. Someone with a bit of time on their hands could probably write a formula for how many of the smelts among a sentence of N repeats can legally be one or the other, given the mixed tenses; it's not obvious.
  • Police police police

    This is frequently true, and dangerously so! Too often we let police police themselves. Still more dangerous is when we let the police police police police police. It is hard to safeguard against, but somewhere the chain must be broken, if we do not want to live in a police state!

I wonder if that's everything?

* Steven Pinker attributes this observation to his student Annie Senghas. The computer scientist Bill Rapaport is certain he came up with it earlier (along with variations having to do with the buffalo of Buffalo doing the Buffalo buffalo, imagined to be a bit like a more bisony version of the Tennessee Waltz); the earliest known printed reference to buffalo-only sentences appears in Dmitri A. Borgmann's Beyond Language--Adventures in Word and Thought (1967).
** I hadn't fully appreciated this till conform pointed it out, elsewhere in this node.
Andy Glowaski and Neil James Rhind have been particularly helpful in coming up with examples. I have also drawn on, and contributed to, this Wikipedia Talk page.

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