15

Why is the following statement valid, and how can I break it down so that it is easier to understand?

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

6
  • 8
    Not just English! Have you seen the Mandarin "Shi shi" poem?
    – MT_Head
    Jun 23 '11 at 7:13
  • 2
    I feel a bit guilty getting an acceptance for my answer after I voted to close the question. I use Google Instant, and I only have to type in buffalo b to have the 5-word version suggested. After which the wikipedia link I posted up comes top of the list. I see little research effort there. Jun 23 '11 at 7:16
  • 2
    Plenty of other similar sentences here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/2459/…
    – Urbycoz
    Jun 23 '11 at 8:26
  • The ommission of "that" from the above sentence araguably makes it gramatically incorrect... but yeah, ridiculously confusing at the least.
    – Noldorin
    Jun 23 '11 at 21:05
  • 1
    NY bison (that) NY bison fool (,) fool NY bison.
    – TecBrat
    Jan 1 '15 at 17:38
17

To buffalo means to intimidate. Buffalo is a place as well as an animal (bison), so there are buffalo from Buffalo as well as buffalo from other places. And they can intimidate anything, including bison.

If you really want the details, read it all here. It's semantically parseable, but you'd be lucky to find a context where you could meaningfully say it without sounding daft.

If you don't have time for the whole story, try this one, which is the breakdown for 11 consecutive 'buffalos' (beats OP's somewhat weedy 6!).

Bison from Buffalo [that other] bison from Buffalo intimidate [also] intimidate bison from Buffalo [that other] bison from Buffalo intimidate.

LATER The constant repetition is obviously intended to be somewhat confusing, so this may make it easier to understand the sentence. Note that there are three senses of the word 'buffalo' being used; as a noun (meaning bison), an adjective (from the town of Buffalo), and a verb (to intimidate). Try substituting different words with similar syntactic usage, such as cats, aggressive, and fight...

Aggressive cats [that other] aggressive cats fight [also] fight aggressive cats [that other] aggressive cats fight.

If that's still awkward, just accept that aggressive cats is simply a 'noun phrase' that could syntactically be substituted with a single word such as people...

People that other people fight also fight people that other people fight.

(i.e. - these people don't only fight the people that fight them - they also fight anyone else those other people fight)

3
  • I just wonder how much time an average native speaker of English needs to comprehend and actually get this sentence. I mean it's been explained very well, and the sentence really is fun, but when we heard it for the first time, we all were confused, weren't we?
    – Enguroo
    Oct 27 '20 at 10:17
  • I'm not sure there's anything unique to English about the cited example, since all languages feature at least some level of polysemy. It's a bit like "code golf" (the "competitive sport" of writing maximally compressed computer code), where I'm sure some programming languages are better than others for that particular "game", but it's not like all the top responses on the Stack Exchange code golf site are all done using the same language. Oct 27 '20 at 11:42
  • ...and I expect any language can express things like I know that you know that he knows that she knows [that you know]... But I'm pretty sure no human mind can actually understand such a statement once the nesting gets more than a few levels deep. Oct 27 '20 at 11:45
25

The word buffalo is interesting because it can be both a singular and a plural noun as well as a verb whose conjugation is the same for both singular and plural subjects, and, when capitalized, the name of a city.

Let's replace each instance of buffalo with a different word that acts similarly to the way that instance of buffalo is used and then parse the sentence.

  1. Let's replace the verb buffalo with the verb intimidate.
  2. Let's replace the noun buffalo with the noun bison.
  3. Let's replace the city Buffalo with the city Rochester.

Now let's look at the sentence: (and I'll throw in a that to help make it even clearer)

Rochester bison [that] Rochester bison intimidate, intimidate Rochester bison.

And, of course, Rochester bison means bison who are from the city of Rochester.

So we've got some bisonnoun from Rochester who intimidateverb some other bisonnoun from Rochestercity who, in turn, intimidateverb still other bisonnoun from Rochestercity- or maybe it's circular and they're intimidating the first group again.

Taking it back to buffalo again we get some buffalonoun from Buffalocity who buffaloverb some other buffalonoun from Buffalocity who, in turn, buffaloverb still other buffalonoun from Buffalocity.

Buffalocity buffalonoun Buffalocity buffalonoun buffaloverb buffaloverb Buffalocity buffalonoun.

The sentence is not meant to make a lot of sense, it's just supposed to be fun.

9
  • 1
    The word "buffalo" is particularly interesting in this context because it is (or can be used as) a plural noun and a plural verb: there are very many nouns that can be used as verbs, but in the typical pattern the noun ends in "-s" for the plural, but the verb ends in "-s" for the (3rd person) singular. The fact that the two plural forms for "buffalo" coincide, and hence can be used together, is what makes composing silly sentences possible :)
    – psmears
    Jan 1 '15 at 13:12
  • 1
    In my vernacular, the verb "to buffalo" means "to fool". I live in the U.S. and most of my experience is in Florida and Indiana.
    – TecBrat
    Jan 1 '15 at 17:34
  • I haven't seen * fool* but I have seen more like bewilder or baffle,
    – Jim
    Jan 1 '15 at 18:17
  • 1
    @user405662 - english.stackexchange.com/a/462439
    – Jim
    Mar 15 '21 at 16:13
  • 1
    @user405662 - Only the ones he preceded with an asterisk are ungrammatical.
    – Jim
    Mar 15 '21 at 17:12
4

(NOTE: This post is for Buffalox8, but the same 'method' is used to parse it.)

From Yulia at Goodreads:

He [I have no idea who Yulia is referring to] wrote:

The trick here is that "buffalo" can be a noun, an adjective, and a verb.

Noun: the large mammal, obviously. :) Adjective: Buffalo the city, as in "a Buffalo man" meaning a "man from Buffalo." Hence "Buffalo buffalo" are buffalo from Buffalo. Verb: Somewhat disused, but nevertheless valid, "to buffalo" means "to intimidate."

It helps to break down the phrasing like this:

"Buffalo buffalo / Buffalo buffalo buffalo / buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

"Buffalo [from:] Buffalo / [that other:] Buffalo [from:] Buffalo [buffalo/intimidate:] / [buffalo/intimidate:] [other:] Buffalo [from:] Buffalo."

[...] "New York bison intimidate upstate Joe."

And from Wikipedia:

  • [Those] (Buffalo buffalo) [whom] (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo, buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).
  • [Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.
  • Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community, also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.
  • THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloED BY buffalo FROM Buffalo, buffalo (verb) OTHER buffalo FROM Buffalo.
  • Buffalo buffalo (main clause subject) [which the] Buffalo buffalo (subordinate clause subject) buffalo (subordinate clause verb) buffalo (main clause verb) Buffalo buffalo (main clause direct object).
7
  • I wouldn't be too concerned with what Yulia at Goodreads says, if he can spend 2 days trying to parse only 8 repetitions. It took me nearly a minute to parse the 11-repetition version - but I used to write programs, so I'm used to symbol manipulation. Jun 23 '11 at 7:22
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers: I fail to see your reasoning that uses the argument of writing programs to seemingly come across as superior, and furthermore, that used to discard another persons argument at whim - the length of time someone spends on a problem it directly related to their aspirations to solve it satisfactorily, and that is subjective; it has nothing to do with the immediate abilities of comprehension. We're not talking about 2+2 here. Jun 23 '11 at 8:29
  • @Mr. Disappointment: I'm sorry you feel that way. I haven't intentionally criticised @muntoo's 'argument'. I simply pointed out that his first quoted excerpt (which is from another language discussion site) is a post from someone who admits he can't understand the 8-repetition version. Still without wishing to seem overly negative, I will point out here that @muntoo spent less time than I did - all he posted was two quoted sections, which is why his answer got in first. Jun 23 '11 at 11:44
  • ...As for 'smart', I assume we're all capable of parsing the sentence in a few minutes at most. Many will be much quicker than me, given either of our answers (plus the Wikipedia link we both give, if necessary). Doubtless some will be slower than me, which is why I modestly attributed my own timing to my background. Programming does involve much parsing of symbol sequences, so anyone slower than me can attribute my speed to my background training, and not feel intellectually belittled. Jun 23 '11 at 11:51
  • @FumbleFingers: I wasn't referring to @muntoo's argument. And in no way to the time spent in posting this answer. As for someone admitting they don't 'understand', you're putting words in his mouth there, so to speak; I haven't gone to the trouble of reading the full reference, but at most, here, he states that 'it doesn't work' for him - I think there is a deeper level of understanding desired here, rather than just getting an answer and accepting as a given. Jun 23 '11 at 12:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.