Tag Archives: syntax

Buffalo buffalo

In 1972, a graduate student in the linguistics department at the University of Indiana created what is possibly the zaniest sentence in the English language:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The inventor of the sentence, Dr. William Rapaport, argues that the syntax of his sentence breaks down to the use of “buffalo” as a place (the city of Buffalo), thing (those furry rhinos who used to carpet the Great Plains), verb (“to buffalo”, which means to bully or overwhelm), and style (e.g. Buffalo-style buffalo wings). So, buffalo who reside in, or at least culturally identify themselves with, the city of Buffalo, NY (i.e. Buffalo buffalo) are engaged in the act of buffaloing other Buffalonian buffalo in a fashion that is stylistically unique to the city of Buffalo.

Dr. Rapaport, who heightens the confusion by now working at the University of Buffalo, has managed to successfully identify a word with enough versatility to serve as an object, verb, and place on the map, all while appearing identical in both singular and plural form. He has argued that last point most vehemently, on the grounds that plural “-s” endings “lack a certain aesthetic simplicity”.

Discriminating tastes aside, I applaud Dr. Rapaport for his discovery, even if it resides entirely on a single page in a dictionary. But let’s face the giant animal in the room; repeating the word “buffalo” seven times doesn’t make any sense. For starters, it fails the most basic of English tests. If I approached a human English speaker on the street and recited Dr. Rapaport’s sentence, he or she would look at me as if I had just tried to offer them a ride on my spaceship.

The sentence also holds no historical value. It was first written in 1972, long after any significant buffalo-related buffaloing could have taken place. Plus, there may not actually be any buffalo who identify themselves as full-time residents of the city of Buffalo, New York. A search of city records yielded no results, although all it takes is one deranged citizen to take a stab at unregistered buffalo ownership. An aggressive door-to-door search of homes for unregistered herds may yield positive results, but it’s unlikely to gain steam, given the current economic conditions.

To this English speaker, however, the confounding element of Dr. Rapaport’s sentence rests not in how it’s read or written, but in the amount of time and effort that took place in order to authenticate his research: The cloudy chalkboard of scribbled variations; The late nights with his academic advisor by his side, peppering it with suggestions  (“Perhaps you could cross out the third “buffalo” in the sentence and attach it to the end”); the nods of approval by faculty members when his paper was published; and the faces of his peers, who were complicit to the entire event.

So maybe William Rapaport has added a valueless sentence to the English language. Maybe this is the first case of a toddler speaking on the same linguistic plane as degree-conferring academics. Maybe his verbal concoction is less than Shakespearean.

But times are tough for the world of wordplay. The English language isn’t as ripe for innovation as it was during William Shakespeare’s time. Nowadays, the only way for a linguistics professor to make a blip on the cultural radar is to repeatedly string together the same word. So, it’s likely for the best that Dr. Rapaport keeps his gold star. Because when there’s not enough low hanging fruit to go around, you have to pick the apples beneath your shoes.