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A History of the Sentence "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo." (1999-2015) (buffalo.edu)
180 points by mezod 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 126 comments





Another favorite:

If police police police police, who police police police? Police police police police police police.

And:

James, while John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.

Also, of course Martin Gardner came up with a great one:

Wouldn't the sentence "I want to put a hyphen 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, as well as after Chips?


Is the first one quite right?

Who police police police? Police police police police.

If police police the police police, who police the police who police police police? That would be police who police the police who police the police who police police.

Who (n)? (n+1).

If (n), who (n)? (n+1). [n > 2]

P.S. 10 edits later... Wait, is that even right? Ow, my head

P.P.S. Coding this chatbot is the next hot interview question.


Police police = Internal Affairs [1].

Who polices Internal Affairs? Internal Affairs-police police Internal Affairs.

As I used a hyphen myself in that sentence, you could make a decent argument that English requires a bit more punctuation in the original sentence. It certainly allows it.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_affairs_(law_enforcem... , for those who don't watch as much police drama as my family does, or who live in a place that calls it something different.


Actually, I don't believe it relies on unmarked compounds, or, indeed, adjectives at all. This is mentioned in point 3 in the linked article, but was surprised to see people in the email threads (e.g. Neuner) not get this.

Basically, as I understand it, there are three rules to make this continue indefinitely, using only nouns and verbs:

Rule 1: Any noun or noun-phrase can be made into a sentence by placing a verb at the end.

e.g. "Police police" is a sentence. What do police do? They police. We could also say "Cops police." Likewise it works with noun-phrases: "[Eager cops] police."

Rule 2: Any Noun phrase + Transitive verb sentence can have a noun placed at the end, as the object of the action.

e.g. "Police police police." Who do cops police? Other cops. Similarly: "Detectives investigate criminals."

Rule 3: The object of any sentence of the form above can be re-arranged by placing the object in front, to form a noun-phrase with the same number of words:

"Detectives investigate criminals" => "Criminals detectives investigate... [tend to get caught]". This can also be phrased as "Criminals THAT detectives investigate" for clarity, but the THAT is unnecessary in English.

"Police police police..." => "Cops THAT cops police... [tend to quit their jobs]

This forms a new noun phrase (a sentence fragment) that you can apply rule #1 to, and then continue indefinitely from there.

To apply these three rules up to seven words:

"Police police police: ("Cops police cops").

"Police police police police" ("Cops cops police police"): Turn the object of the sentence above into a noun phrase, from rule 3: "Cops (THAT) other cops police...", and add a verb (Rule 1): "The cops THAT other cops police, themselves police.

"Police police police police police" ("Cops cops police police cops"): Who do they police? Other cops. (Rule 2)

"Police police police police police police" ("Cops cops cops police police police"): (Rearranged noun phrase, from rule 3: The policemen (from the line above above) THAT are policed by cops that are themselves policed by cops) + (Rule 1 Verb: themselves police).

"Police police police police police police police" ("Cops cops cops police police police cops"): ... and who do they police? Other cops. (Rule 2)

...Anyway, this is how I worked it out myself, when trying to understand the buffalo sentence, and then was always very disappointed to find the variation with the capitalized "Buffalo" adjective being touted as the canonical one, since it always seemed less interesting to me.


I agree with you. This is the most profound way to interpret these kinds of sentences, and it exemplifies a consequence of how English allows you to omit the "that" in dependent clauses.

(police police) [specifies what kind of police] (police) [people who do the policing] (police) [verb] (police police) [object that gets policed].

If (something)-police police (something), who police (something)-police? ((something)-police)-police police ((something)-police).


> who police (something)-police?

This is the problem. The question is “who polices …?”, not “who police …?”, the rest of the sentence structure aside.


I think it's

> If (n + 1) police (n), who police (n + 1)? (n + 2).

which reduces to

> If (2n + 2), who (n + 2)? (n + 2).


See, it’s the perfect interview question!

I feel like it should be ‘who polices police police?’.

As exemplified in the sibling comment substituting police police for internal affairs.


Upvoted for your charming public mulling over of the issues and the P.P.S

Not sure why I was downvoted for the comment... maybe it sounded sarcastic? I meant it in a nice way

> If police police police police, who police police police?

I’m pretty sure the fifth ‘police’ (after ‘who’) should be ‘polices’.


Who rob banks? Robbers. (i.e. I don't think 'Robbers robs banks' is right.)

> Who rob banks? Robbers. (i.e. I don't think 'Robbers robs banks' is right.)

“Robbers robs banks” is certainly wrong (it should be “Robbers rob banks”), but so is “Who rob banks?” (it should be “Who robs banks?”).


As a follow-up to my sibling comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18410528: if your point is that the question should parallel the answer, note that the exchange could also go ”Who robs banks?” ”John Dillinger robs banks.” A question that can only be asked if you already know its answer (so as to decide whether the verb in the question should match a singular or plural noun) is not so useful!

There's an even neater way to construct these sentences. The construct "Police police police" can be construed in two different ways:

1. As a complete N-V-N sentence.

2. As a noun phrase with an implied "that" i.e. "Police [that] police police..."

So you can freely substitute "Police police police" for either the first or last "police" in the base sentence and derive a new legitimate sentence with a noun at either end. That process can be repeated as many times as you like.


That first one is a twister. If police police police police, who police police police?

POLICE police police police police police. I seriously can't stop laughing at these, they are hilarious. The fish-and-chips one, my god, what a brilliant thing.


That's not right. It's (((police) police) police), not (police (police (police))).

It's leviosa, not levoisa! Jokes aside, I think I'm right. "(police(police(police))" reads as "police of the police of the police", which sounds right. I read it as "If police-police police police, who police police-police? Police-police-police police police-police."

I wouldn't even know where to put quotation marks if you asked me where quotation marks belonged between 'Fish' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and,' and 'and,' and 'and', and 'and'....

There's an entire subreddit dedicated to these things.

Definitely worth a check.

https://www.reddit.com/r/WordAvalanches/

EDIT: Adding some good examples:

https://www.reddit.com/r/WordAvalanches/comments/3ogese/a_sw...

https://www.reddit.com/r/WordAvalanches/comments/6so5w4/the_...


My favorites

The President of the United States is going to debate the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Nobody's sure who's going to win. - "Trump may trump May, May may trump Trump."

I've never done cocaine. - "My nose knows no snows."

The guy who sketches crossbreed dogs is suitable for the role - "The labradoodle doodle dude'll do."


At least we all know what did the Doge do.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Court_Jester


There's also a Japanese version of this: 子子子子子子子子子子子子

Unfortunately I can only find a Spanish language Wikipedia article about it (https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neko_no_ko_koneko,_shishi_no...) but its roughly "kitten is the son of the cat, 'puppy' is the son of the lion" (we don't really have an English word for baby lion)


An example in Chinese (also involving lions): http://www.fa-kuan.muc.de/SHISHI.RXML

What can I use nowadays to play this site's .rm (real media?) files?

VLC will likely play them fine outside a browser. No idea how one would get them to work inside.

This is amazing and insane!

(we don't really have an English word for baby lion)

Cub?


Yes. I like how Google translate wrote it when translating the Spanish version; "the cat's son is a kitten; the son of the lion, cub".

Oh yeah! Definitely better.

Definitely better than puppy, but not quite specific to lions.

It’s specific to lions, just not exclusive to lions.

Ooh, pedantry, my kind of thread:

https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/specific

I think it fails on most if not all definitions of specific.

"Lion cub" is specific, lion and cub are both specifiers. But "cub" is specific to juveniles of a range of species; so I'd say "not specific to lions".

Interesting then to think which species do have specific English single-word names for juveniles. Owlets, foals, and joeys spring to mind ...

French has louveteau for a wolf cub, perhaps it has a specific lion cub word too? I'd imagine Kiswahili to have a specific word, perhaps?


On english wikipedia it's a section of another article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ono_no_Takamura#Takamura_in_la...

Not quite the same thing. The character 子 has many different readings, meaning it is pronounced differently depending on context. E.g. 子 on its own is KO, but in the word 中性子 (chuuseishi) it is pronounced SHI. Those different pronunciations can be combined to a somewhat sensible phrase when spoken. But that phrase when written would come out as 猫の子子猫、獅子の子子獅子. So it's more of a pun than a grammar quirk. I feel like it's more related to the English "word" ghoti (fish), as it's specifically a quirk of the writing system.

But I had never seen this before and it's fascinating! I don't mean to sound pedantic, I just think it's interesting how different languages have different sorts of technical oddities.


It's also interesting how の can be inserted as needed, a la 山手線 or 井上さん. Old Japanese works quite a bit differrently than the modern, productive sort.

Is that perhaps related to how traditionally, Japan wrote in Classical Chinese, then used a system for “reading” it as Japanese?

I suspect so, since this kind of thing becomes more frequent as you go back in time. I think that's the same story for why some two-character words seem to have backwards word-ording, e.g. 日本に滞在する vs 在日する, or 米国へ渡る vs 渡米する.

I've also noticed that readings seem to become more liberal in general. These days we tend to think of kanji having rigid associations to readings; however, you'll sometimes see some characters replacing semantically similar ones, despite the readings being different.

I also suspect this flexibility is how Japanese acquired such a complicated mapping between it's written and spoken forms.

Blah, blah blah. You get me on this subject and I can ramble endlessly. :)


in chinese the ma sound have several meanings (granted, with different tones).

but it can mean mother, horse, hemp, question... there is certainly a chinese version of this around the corner :)


See also the German compound word:

Rhababerbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbarbärbel

Which roughly translates to 'She's the Barbie of the bar where the beer of the beard barber for the barbarians of Rhubarb Barbara's bar is sold'

Explanation video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3_tRPRt9x8

(in German, translation in video description)


If we're going off on a tangent: in Dutch, you can have a sentence ending in seven infinitives: "Ik zou hem wel eens hebben willen zien durven blijven staan kijken." (I would have liked to see him dare to stay stand watching.)

(Although Dutch and German syntax are almost identical, this doesn't work in German.)


Thanks for sharing that. I'm learning Dutch (Flemish) for the last two-ish years, taking night classes). I heard my teacher say you can string along three infinitives, but didn't realize you can go up to seven!

I recently finished B-2 and now "C-1" level[+]---the most difficult so far. I'm going to persist...

[+] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of...


The sentence is a bit contrived, but any Dutch speaker will readily understand it. Three infinitives in a row is quite common, four is not that rare.

I’ve been learning*

:D


In English as well you can build sentences like "It's you I would love to love to love ... to love!", with arbitrarily many terminal infinitives.

It's nice that the English translation is nearly as selfsimilar.

In German, I think I came up with one, but am told it doesn’t work because dienen has to take the indirect object (turning some “die”s into “der”s).

“Die, die die Die dient, dient die Die, die die Die dient.”

The one who serves the Die serves the Die that the Die serves.

(die- sounds like “dee”.)


Lord in heaven, German compound words have always broken my brain.

Try Finnish.

Police is a much better word for this, IMHO. :) To spell it out, it's an adjective (e.g police car) verb (e.g. police the streets) and obviously a noun. Buffalo has never struck me as a very good verb...

Here in the UK, I've never seen buffalo used as a verb, so the buffalo sentence has never seemed all that clever to me.

I've always preferred the publican's complaint - "This sign is painted wrong, you missed the spaces between Dog and and, and and and Duck" - because it doesn't rely on unmarked compounds like police-police or Buffalo-buffalo no-one uses outside linguistic puzzles :)


American here. Never heard anyone use “buffalo” as a verb either outside of this puzzle.

“Police police” (as well as extensions) is reasonable enough:

“Internal Affairs is like the police police.”

“So are their supervisors like, the police police police?”


It has a valid usage that’s somewhat archaic. I’ve run into the term in literature and old TV.

We should name a town Police.

Perhaps if you were from Buffalo where the Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo you'd be more receptive to the idea.


You could tack on several more if the fragment being corrected is "...conjunctions like butandandandor..." so that they are missing spaces between but and and, and and and and, and and and and, and and and or, and commas would help immensely.

It's subjective of course, but for me buffalo is more satisfying because the noun, adjective and verb are all totally different words, whereas for police they're all variants of the same root.

I'm pretty sure all variants of buffalo are from the same root?

Edit: A buffalo is a member of a number of species of large antelope, to buffalo is to either act as a buffalo or hunt buffalo, and Buffalo is any of several places where there used to be a lot of buffalo before people buffaloed them to near extinction.

On the other hand, there's a town in Poland called Police...


To "buffalo" is to confuse, befuddle, deceive, puzzle, baffle, confuse, mystify, bewilder, or bamboozle.

It can also be to impress or intimidate by a display of power, importance, or authority.

It doesn't seem to mean hunting or acting as a buffalo. I can't find those in any dictionary.


to impress or intimidate by a display of power, importance, or authority.

Have you seen a bison? Their display of power is quite intimidating.

According to [0], it can mean to hunt buffalo.

[0] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/buffalo#Verb


Although antelope and buffalo are both in the family bovidae, a buffalo isn't a large antelope. That's especially true of the animals that Americans call buffalo and antelope, where Antilocapra isn't even in that same family.

I found this fascinating:

"An antelope is a member of a number of even-toed ungulate species indigenous to various regions in Africa and Eurasia. Antelopes comprise a wastebasket taxon (miscellaneous group) within the family Bovidae, encompassing those Old World species that are not cattle, sheep, buffalo, bison, or goats."

- they're defined by where they're from and what they aren't. There are 91 species. So, for example, a gnu (wildebeest) is an antelope.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antelope


My bad; the ancient Greeks were not so discriminating. ;)

I am aware that the bison is not even a buffalo. But then again, it is, isn't it? That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.


Do you find buffalo particularly bewildering? or in the city of Buffalo?

buffalo (v.)

"alarm, overawe," 1900, from buffalo (n.). Probably from the animals' tendency to mass panic. Related: Buffaloed; buffaloing.

Buffalo

city in western New York state, U.S., of disputed origin (there never were bison thereabouts), perhaps from the name of a native chief, or a corruption of French beau fleuve "beautiful river."


malo malo malo malo

Nouns, verb, and adjective all different.

* https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/malo#Latin


I don't think it makes sense to say that "police" is an adjective in the same sense that "happy" is an adjective. Otherwise all nouns are also adjectives. _Any_ noun in English can be placed in front of another noun to serve as an attribute, because that is a feature of English syntax, but that is different from the distinction between nouns and adjectives as classes of words. The decision to use the word "adjective" both for the part of speech and for the syntactical role is a mistake.

Obviously, police that police police police police, and those that police that group, police police police, police police police.

I prefer the "ship shipping ship shipping ship shipping ship" because there's a nice picture (possibly fake, but still) for it:

https://imgur.com/gallery/pB0VXKq



It's legit. Towards the bottom is another photo taken from a different angle and a video (I didn't watch it but the thumbnail looks promising)

https://twistedsifter.com/2012/04/blue-marlin-giant-ship-tha...


And then there's the 2002 Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken paper by Doug Zongker (https://news.cs.washington.edu/2013/08/14/chicken-chicken-ch...)

Such an enlightening read!


It may not be the original video, but a video presentation of it is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL_-1d9OSdk by the original author, contrary to the link's claims. It is probably the better way to approach the paper, due to the importance of timing in comedy and the fact that paper presents so much to you in a way that it can't control the timing, though unfortunately the video resolution is quite low. Plus the Q&A is pretty good.

It is an amusing combination of video that is a trenchant commentary on the excessive similarity of the vast bulk of hard science papers, and a video that my four year old enjoyed back in the day. That puts your standard "family friendly" comedy movie to shame in terms of how much comedy ground it is capable of covering.


A true classic. Every one should read.

Missed opportunity for a great domain name - http://Buffalo.buffalo.buffalo.buffalo.buffalo.edu

A bit of a stretch, but there's also:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

(NewYork bison [that] NewYork bison bully [also] bully NewYork bison)


This rides entirely on your local vernacular having a verb "buffalo" which means "to bully". I'm not sure how widespread that is but I sure never heard it before reading an explanation of this sentence.

Merriam-Webster has the verb "to buffalo" as going back to 1891, with no notion of it being specific to any particular locale. The OED says it's "North American slang," while Google's dictionary calls it "informal". I've certainly heard it in conversation on the east and west coasts of the U.S. (albeit very occasionally). [Added:] For all sorts of American examples over the decades, see https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/buffaloed-by-the-...

It's in mine.

Maybe not common usage, but it's there.

Source: From the western US.


I grew up in Iowa/Minnesota, and buffalo is (was) used there. But is it a regionalism or anachronism?

To me, “to buffalo” canotes a combination of verbal bullying and deception more than physical bullying.


Didn't make sense to this Brit; 'buffalo' definitely not in UK vernacular (at least not mine)

Well, the European bison never came to Britain, so you never had to suffer their buffaloing... ;)

I believe you can also change that to be:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.


It works for any noun that is also a verb and a place name. It might not make sense depending on what the noun and verb mean but it would be grammatically correct. If there's a town named Fish then you could substitute fish for buffalo.

No town as far as I could find but several rivers called Fish. So yes, you can fish Fish fish.

I can see a Dr. Seuss style of book being written about "smelt" since it's a noun (a fish) a verb (extract metal from ore) and when spoken it's not very distinguishable from "smelled" and both "smelts" have are relatively strong smelling.

> and when spoken it's not very distinguishable from "smelled"

In fact “smelt” is a completely valid alternative spelling of “smelled” (see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/smell#Verb).


What I find most fascinating about this story is the "I'm certain I came up with this" notion, given the last several emails on that webpage. Memory is a terribly imprecise thing. We seem to fill in gaps with other memories that are shaped to fit the gap, or we logically reason it out without telling ourselves that we are using logic not memory. I personally have very detailed provably false memories.


Speaking of words ... here's one of my favorite German compound words:

Verschlimmbesserung — "an intended improvement that makes things worse"

I'm sure many of us here can relate to the word :D

History of the word:

"This construction doesn’t just present contrasting concepts. It also employs a playful use of German’s grammatical structures to tie them together. The word begins with two verbs – verschlimmern (“to worsen”) and verbessern (“to improve”). It then conflates their prefixes (ver-), and adds the suffix (-ung) to turn it into a noun. This process compresses an idea that only a wordy English translation can unpack: “an intended improvement that makes things worse."

Source: https://theconversation.com/why-the-german-language-has-so-m...


Back in the '90s, David Pogue did a column in MacWorld where he introduced a bunch of terminology that he thought the tech industry needed.

One of those, the only one I remember, was "corrupgrade", for exactly that.


I've heard that called "refucktoring" :)

Haha. A German colleague called it "inferiprovement". But I like the version you heard better.

A great example of the beauty of the english language.

German translation: Büffel-büffelnde Büffel büffeln Büffel. Not nearly as nice.


I'd say that it's an example of a flaw in the english language: I don't know german but I think that the fact that not all words are exactly the same in the sentence will make it easier to parse. I'm not a native English speaker but I think I'm fairly proficient, and I find that I struggle parsing newspaper and website titles much more often than I would expect - I never struggle when speaking with people. I think this is due to the fact that short sentences omit articles and prepositions, which makes english way harder to parse since it doesn't have the redundancy in grammatical cues that other languages have.

Words being the same makes it harder to parse, but easier to speak/write...

Unfortunately I don’t think the German variant works due to the verb “büffeln” being intransitive.

Apart from that, the presence of inflection in German renders the sentence less aesthetically pleasing but alleviates the exact ambiguity that dogs the English example so I’d see it as a plus.


But you have such nice stories in German!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gG62zay3kck


Do you say beauty ironically here?

Beautiful in the same way the cloud from an exploded star is beautiful. You wouldn't want to be stuck in its path.

https://oeis.org/A007477

“For n>=2, a(n) gives number of possible ways to parse an English sentence consisting of just n+1 copies of word "buffalo", with one particular "plausible" grammar.”


A few years ago I created a syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless programming language based on this.

Devoid of syntactic sugar, Buffalo Lang has only one token.

http://bfalo.com


Did someone really ask for pointers?

It's Esoteric Enterprise ready..

See also the palindrome "Bob bob bob bob bob".

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=shs1DQAAQBAJ&pg=PA79&lpg...


A famous one in Chinese is The Lion-Eating Poet in a Stone Den, which has all characters sounding out as "shi": http://www.fa-kuan.muc.de/SHISHI.RXML

This is somewhat cheating since not all the "shi" are in the same tone.

In general, homophonic sentences are easier to write in Chinese because (1) it's a monophonic language, so the set of possible syllables is small and (2) Chinese grammar is flexible, and words can be liberally rearranged in a sentence and still read fine.


Frankly I'm not surprised. The only bison in the city of Buffalo are in the zoo. As we all know, bison are native to the great prairies, and would be happy only if they had freedom to roam. It must be very stressful for them to be cooped up in small spaces. So they are likely to take out their frustrations on their fellow zoo residents.

Shame on Buffalo for condoning animal cruelty! They should close down the zoo.


The buffalo have been buffaloing for quite a while:

https://hn.algolia.com/?query=Buffalo%20buffalo%20buffalo%20...


I just wish my alma mater's website could make the front page of HN for something other than this!

Probably a more of a statement about my sense of humor than anything else, but this is, by not even close, the funniest thing I have ever read on Hacker News!

One of the "Yes, Yes, No" segments on Reply All featured this and it was the only time I've come away from it more confused then when they started

How about "man eating lion eating man eating lion eating man ...".

It should probably be "man-eating lion" for the lion that eats a man, but that spoils it.


It's funny, because Buffalo buffalo are actually Bison bison bison. And when one decides to buffalo, the other is usually cowed.

Humorous but does this move us closer to true AI?

The 'sentence' is not correct English because it's missing important punctuation marks. In fact, it's not a sentence.

The definition of a sentence according to Google is: "a set of words that is complete in itself...". Without punctuation, it is incomplete; so it is not a sentence. Maybe it's a phrase?

Adding punctuation makes it a sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

...

Buffalo buffalo which Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

...

Buffalo bisons which Buffalo bisons bully, bully Buffalo bisons.


Polish polish Polish polish polish, polish Polish polish Polish polish.

Uniform in writing, though pronunciation shifts with casing.


Goose is one of those too, though the plural sort of ruins it. Still poetic though:

Geese geese goose goose geese.


i know a german one which almost also works in english: "Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen hinterher" which should translate to: if behind flies flies are flying, flies are flying behind flies.

The only thing missing is an explanation why buffalo and dog are verbs. Non native speaker here, but afaik they are not.

See:

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/buffalo (verb)

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/dog (verb)

"buffalo" is almost never used as a verb in everyday speech.


The beauty of English is the process of 'verbing', where we can turn arbitrary nouns into verbs. Schooled in Commonwealth English, I wasn't familiar with buffalo being used as a verb but others in this thread have cited its meaning.

https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-verbing-1691035


This is useless. Also, as a non-native speakee, I don't get it.

Buffalo * 10

No plus sign, so buffalo^10 :)

yes



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