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Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo (wikipedia.org)
174 points by roundsquare on Feb 3, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments

When a friend of mine was in grad school, he helped a classmate prepare for her Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. They were going over some fine point about past tenses when, attempting to explain a mistake she had made, he said: If you had had "had" here, you would have had to have had "have" there. She screamed.

Reminiscent of the classic 'John, where Peter had had "had" had had "had had". "Had had" had had the examiner's approval.'

Interesting that Wikipedia only dates this from 1947; my 1964 copy of the 1935 book "Tricks and Amusements with coins, cards, string, paper and matches" by R.M. Abraham includes this problem on page 3!

Please correct the article! :)

One can't buffalo buffalo without thinking of the two old standbys:

The horse raced past the barn fell. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_path_sentence)

John while James had had had had had had had had had more fun. (That one was from an old puzzle book I had—had had?—as a kid. I find it much like the Buffalo sentence, in that you puzzle over it for a while, are told the resolution, and then say “Huh. OK, if you say so.”)

EDIT: While my mind's on random funny sentences, this one was an old favourite of my mother's (who taught me all the grammar I know) from Cheaper by the Dozen. It is the reaction of a child, whose bedroom is on the second floor, on being presented with an unacceptable evening's reading: “What did you bring that book you know I don't like to be read to out of up for?”

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” -- Winston Churchill

My favorite treatment of that Garden path sentence, is this Dinosaur Comics strip: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=204

That's beautiful! It must be 20 years that I've been subconsciously bothered by that puzzle, because I couldn't understand what “more fun” was supposed to mean in that context. With ‘where’ in place of ‘while’ and “a better effect on the teacher” in place of “more fun”, it sudddenly makes sense.

Also, the linked article links to “List of linguistic example sentences” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_linguistic_example_sent...), which introduced me to a beautiful Mitch Hedberg quote:

> I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long.

and helped me remember a word that has been eluding me for some time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_linguistic_example_sent.... Thanks!

...are told the resolution, and then say “Huh. OK, if you say so.”

Adding punctuation helps:

John, while James had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had more fun.

Not much, it still doesn't make any sense to read or hear.

Just because something can be parsed does NOT make it good English. The whole purpose of language is to communicate - if it cannot be understood without parsing it is not correct.

Of course, the examples are not supposed to communicate, but to be entertaining, which is a different function.

> Not much, it still doesn't make any sense to read or hear.

pvg points out below (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1097310) that my source had a nonsensical ending; the actual ending makes a bit more sense.

Interestingly, one can in fact create valid English sentences of arbitrary length composed entirely of the word "Buffalo." By induction:

n = 1 is valid as the imperative of the verb. That is to say, "Buffalo" means "You should harangue someone."

n = 2 is valid again as the imperative, this time with a subject: buffalo. That is, "Buffalo buffalo" means "You should harangue some bison."

For n > 2, assume that the sentence for n - 1 is valid. This sentence will contain at least one instance of the noun "buffalo" (meaning the animal), either with or without the adjective "Buffalo" (meaning the city) prefixing it. If there is no adjective, we can add one to get an n-length sentence. If there is an adjective, we can replace "Buffalo buffalo" (meaning bison from New York) with "buffalo buffalo buffalo" (meaning bison that are harangued by other bison), again yielding an n-length sentence. Thus, by induction, a buffalo sentence can be constructed for any n.

For n=2, you have a verb and an object, but no subject.

What's with the downvote? I understand the implied subject, but this part:

n = 2 is valid again as the imperative, this time with a subject: buffalo. That is, "Buffalo buffalo" means "You should harangue some bison."

is wrong. The two "buffalo" are the verb and the object. Neither of them is a subject.

You're right. I got my terminology mixed up.

The subject (you) is implied by the imperative.

n=2 could also mean "Bison do harangue."

It works for the word "tin" as well.

A rather tinny sort of word, don't you think?

I'm always reminded of this by code like

    Buffalo buffalo = new Buffalo(BUFFALO);

The AI dream: code code codes codes code.

From the Wikipedia article, the following was the only one that let me make sense of this:

""Alley cats [whom] Junkyard dogs intimidate [also happen to] intimidate Sewer rats.""

(Where the place "Buffalo is replaced by "Alley", "Junkyard", "Sewer" - and the act, to buffalo, is replaced with "intimidate", while the animals "buffalo" is replaced with cats, dogs, and rats.

I'll admit it took me a few minutes to get the implicit "whom" and "also happen to".

The way I remember it myself is by building it up in my head first:

cows intimidate cows

Scranton cows intimidate cows.

cows Scranton cows intimidate intimidate cows

Scranton cows Scranton cows intimidate intimidate cows

Scranton cows Scranton cows intimidate intimidate Scranton cows.

Once I've got the structure in my head with pauses to break it up for myself: Buffalo buffalo pause Buffalo buffalo buffalo pause buffalo Buffalo buffalo it's pretty easy to grok (and spit out on cue to the disbelief of others).

That's a good breakdown.

cats, dogs, rats = Buffalo as in Bison

Alley, Junkyard, Sewer = Buffalo as in Buffalo, NY

intimidate = Buffalo as in bully

So it roughly turns out as: Buffalo,NY bison [whom] Buffalo,NY bison bully [also] bully Buffalo,NY bison.

Similar but (1) better because it doesn't use coincidental multiple meanings, (2) better because it doesn't use anything so obscure as buffalo=harass, and (3) worse because it needs two different words:

oysters oysters oysters split split split

"oysters split": oysters come apart into two pieces.

"oysters oysters split split": oysters whom oysters split, split: those oysters whom other oysters take apart into two pieces, come apart into two pieces.

"oysters oysters oysters split split split": oysters whom (oysters whom oysters split, split) split: those oysters whom (those oysters whom other oysters take apart into two pieces, in turn take apart into two pieces) come apart into two pieces.

Much as with the buffalo sentence, this works for arbitrary values of 3.

I bet Natural Language Processing Engines would crap them selves if they try to parse this correctly.

This is why we can't have nice things

That's ok. Biological language processing engines crap themselves if they try to parse this correctly.

The real problem is that an artificial language processing engine will find a parse for it.

One actual example I remember is a parse of "New fans run." About the operation of recently acquired fans, right?

Well, the lexicon in our system found an instance of "New" as a proper noun (a band or something), the use of "fans" as a transitive verb, and one of the definition of "runs" as a noun (think baseball, for just one example). So you had this proper noun New fanning this abstract usage of runs as the parse that the system selected.

This more than anything demonstrated to me the necessity of statistical techniques in NLP (now taken as a given, but a fairly recent development relative to the history of NLP research).

What I was thinking, worrying giving that I'll probably be doing a fair bit of work in language processing this year.

Really? As the sentences get longer, I'd expect NLP engines to have a much easier time with it than people do.

I like "The Los Angelos Angels", which means "The The Angels Angels".

Kind of like "Montgomery of the El Alamein," which means Montgomery of the the the Amein.

Ah, fun with grammar ;) Dutch comedian Kees Torn came up with a (Dutch) sentence, repeating one word 16 times in a row: "Als er bij het drop (waar bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen) Bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen, bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHnpjsR5q6g)

No coke, pepsi

Wouldn't the sentence "I want to put two hyphens between the words Fish and And, and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign" have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, and after Chips?

Which is why overloading and type inference aren't very good friends.

Make sure to click the 'Listen to this article' link at the bottom - many Wikipedia articles are much funnier if someone is reading them to you.

I remember one from grade 5 which is kind of similar ... "I saw a saw to saw a saw "

(The Buffalo based is definitely not easy to comprehend in the first go)

One in German:

Wenn fliegen hinter fliegen fliegen, fliegen fliegen fliegen hinter nach.

It means something like, "when flies fly behind flies, then flies fly after flies."

Correction: Wenn hinter fliegen fliegen fliegen, fliegen fliegen fliegen nach.

It's actually quite sensible in German. Transliterated, it's "When behind flies flies fly, the flies after-fly the flies." Translated it would be more like "When flies fly behind flies, flies are following flies."

To "after-fly" is to follow, but by flight. And of course, per usual in German, that verb is split apart with the "after" prefix stuck at the end, which is how you end up -- quite naturally! -- with six fliegens in a row.

Confer this gem from Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language":

The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab -- which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED."

Shouldn't there be time and arrows in there somewhere?

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

Time flies like an arrow; space flies like a bow.

I am also reminded of Marklar from South Park.

Everytime I come across this I have to go to the wikipedia page to check the grammar.

I find these types of sentences incredibly creative (and confusing).

A similar thing, inspired by buffalo and illustrated: http://myapokalips.com/show/15#comic

we have something similar in the hokkien dialect.. which goes .. kong kong kong kong kong kong kong kong kong kong

which consists of ... kong kong = grandpa kong = says kong = can kong = hit kong = dizy

but you have to get the intonation right .. lol

Also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_D... .

It's a private theory of mine that the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods were so lively because "this is an excellent shoulder of pork" sounded exactly like "I will attack your city at dawn"... :)

my sentence parser is officially buffalo'd

I saw a video a while back about Cyc where Lenat talks about how they make sure their AI is still acting somewhat sane by feeding it sentences like this one, or, "Can a can can-can?"

The buffalo sentence may be grammatically valid, but it's not "valid" by any real test of human understanding.

Chomsky-esque generative grammar can't tell the whole story about human language.

I think that's the point, actually. The fact that a sentence can be grammatically correct but not logically correct, or be both, but still not "make sense," is interesting in itself. It shows how difficult it is to determine whether a sentence is "valid" for speakers of that language.

(Chomsky's classic example of "grammatical but not logical" was "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.")

Think of it like this: Chomsky was testing the brain's language parser by handing it weird things and seeing how it reacts. Like you might do with a new programming language: what happens if I try to add strings, or divide them? Is zero true? Is the string "nil" true? Is == different from ===? Can I pass a function into a function?

The brain's language center is undocumented, so we try throwing potential sentences at it and see what works or doesn't, then try to reverse engineer what it's doing. The buffalo sentence conforms to the rules we know about word order, and can be logically explained, but somehow it fails. Finding out why is part of the reverse engineering process.

Yes... the interesting question is whether it fails because of a "rule" we're not aware of, or because it's simply too complex. The human mind is recursive, but is it simply that it only have a "stack depth" of 3 or 4 and can't parse more deeply than that?

>The human mind is recursive, but is it simply that it only have a "stack depth" of 3 or 4 and can't parse more deeply than that?

That was Chomsky and Miller's theory (although they weren't dealing with that particular example).

The interesting thing to me is that the buffalo sentence is not just grammatically correct, but semantically correct as well.

But how does that go against anything Chomsky says?

(Obviously generative grammar doesn't tell the "whole story" about language, but generally speaking, nothing tells the whole story about anything.)

Well, it's good to know Buffalo NY has _something_ going for it.

That they have a bunch of overgrown cows that harass each other?

the article touches on the fact that a sentence of any length could be constructed entirely out of buffalo, but it doesn't really explain how. here's how to make it arbitrarily long:

start with "Buffalo[place] buffalo[noun] buffalo[verb] buffalo[noun]"

after any "buffalo[noun]", insert "Buffalo[place] buffalo[noun] buffalo[verb]" to change the meaning to 'bison that Buffalo bison intimidate'

youve just created a new grammatical sentence of length n+3. iterate and enjoy

pumping lemma?

Malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich. Malkovich?


In college, my wife was told this sentence by a metaphysics professor. He also used to have acid flashbacks during class.


Shouldn't it be Hacker News Hackers Hack Hacker News Hackers' Hacks?

Oooh! I want to play!

Backer News Backers Back Backer News Backers' Backs Racker News Rackers Rack Racker News Rackers' Racks Stacker News Stackers Stack Stacker News Stackers' Stacks

I like:

Oysters oysters eat eat oysters.

Malkavich Malkavich, Malkavich Malkavich Malkavich

Mind = Blown.

Hey, it's available:



...but I think I prefer BadgerBadgerBadger.com

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