A History of the Sentence "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo."

William J. Rapaport

Department of Computer Science and Engineering,
Department of Philosophy,
Department of Linguistics,
and Center for Cognitive Science
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Buffalo, NY 14260-2000

Last Update: 22 September 2006

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

  1. In 1972, I was a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy at Indiana University. One of my professors, John Tienson (now [2006] at the University of Memphis), in a course on Philosophy of Language, gave the following example of a grammatical sentence:

    The syntax is the same as that of

    Several of us students found the plural "-s" endings to lack a certain aesthetic simplicity, and we searched for a better word. I came up with

    I.e., buffalo who are buffaloed by other buffalo themselves buffalo still other buffalo.

    However, my fellow graduate students and I were not satisfied. So I concocted:

    The syntax of the following sentence is close to the previous one:

    I.e., mice who are in Boston, and who are chased (in a way unique to Boston) by cats who are in Boston, eat (in a way unique to Boston) cheese that comes from Boston.

    So, buffalo who live in Buffalo (e.g., at the Buffalo Zoo, which does, indeed, have buffalo), and who are buffaloed (in a way unique to Buffalo) by other buffalo from Buffalo, themselves buffalo (in the way unique to Buffalo) still other buffalo from Buffalo.

  2. In 1976, I used both Buffalo sentences in philosophy courses at State University of New York at Fredonia. Both native and non-native speakers of English who heard it, of course, never ceased to be amazed. Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me that a string of 5 occurrences of the same word could be a grammatical, even meaningful (though hardly "acceptable"), sentence.

  3. In the early 1980s, several graduate students in the Department of Computer Science at State University of New York at Buffalo (where I now teach) noted that the sentence can be extended indefinitely by continued embeddings and NP-modifications.

    I used the following question on AI and computational linguistics exams:

  4. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, other students noted that the original 5-word sentence is ambiguous! In fact, one of the other people who claims to have heard it from someone other than me (in fact, as I recall, he attributed it to Daniel C. Dennett) thinks that it is parallel to:

    (though the capitalization is a bit off for that). Another of my students notes that the 10-word version is also ambiguous, along the lines of this:

  5. In 1994, Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct (New York: William Morrow, 1994, pp. 209-210) cited:

    parsed as meaning that "(The) Buffalo buffalo [i.e., the buffalo who live in Buffalo] (that) [other] Buffalo buffalo (often) buffalo (in turn) buffalo other Buffalo buffalo", and attributed it to his student Annie Senghas.

    I had an email exchange with Pinker about the above history. Pinker responded as follows:

    I replied as follows:

  6. In 1995, I alerted Pinker to another source:

    Pinker replied:

  7. I wrote to Stuart Russell & Peter Norvig concerning exercise 22.8 in the first edition of their Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995):

    To which Norvig replied:

    They did, indeed, update the information; it now appears as Exercise 22.12 in Russell & Norvig's Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 2nd Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2003): 833.

  8. I also communicated with Michael Covington, who cites it in one of his books:

    Covington replied:

    and followed up:

  9. And finally I contacted Berwick:

    Berwick replied:

    I replied:

  10. And, per Berwick's suggestion, I corresponded with de Marcken:

  11. More recently, I received this message:

    ...to which I replied:

    ... to which Neuner replied:

    I further inquired:

    ... and received this reply:

    Copyright © 2006 by William J. Rapaport (rapaport@cse.buffalo.edu)
    file: buffalobuffalo-20060922.html