Buffalo

Further to a recent discussion on natural language processing on the comp.compilers usenet news group, I was reminded of how the following sentence is grammatically correct in American English:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

 
As explained in further detail on Wikipedia, this sentence is an example of how homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) and homophones (words that are pronounced the same, but differ in meaning, and may differ in spelling) can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. The above 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, USA, which is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence;
  • 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.

While the above sentence is syntactically ambiguous, one possible parse would be as follows — a claim that bison who are intimidated or bullied by bison are themselves intimidating or bullying bison (at least in the city of Buffalo):

Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

 
Finally, there is nothing special about eight “buffalos”; any sentence consisting solely of the word “buffalo” repeated any number of times is grammatically correct (and is also a useful mechanism for illustrating rewrite rules). The shortest is “Buffalo!”, which can be taken as an imperative instruction (“[You] buffalo!”). Versions of this linguistic oddity can be constructed with other words which similarly simultaneously serve as collective noun, adjective, and verb, some of which need no capitalisation (e.g. “police”).

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