The English language is amazing. It is also weird. Whether you grew up with English as your first language or you are picking it up later in life, you will never exhaust its richness nor will you stop scratching your head in bewilderment.
Trying to get a handle on all the usages and rules may feel like trying to wrap your arms around a buffalo.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Don’t worry… Your computer is not glitching. The word buffalo was supposed to appear eight times in a row. They are there to prove the opening premise: the English language is weird. Those eight uses of the same word, remarkably, constitute a complete sentence in the peculiar dialect known as English. Making sense of the sentence requires a bit of English exegesis.
The word appears eight times but in three different ways:
- Buffalo: (proper noun) a city in the U.S. state of New York, located adjacent to Niagara Falls.
- buffalo: (noun) a species of bison, specifically, the American bison, native to North America. “Buffalo” can refer to one animal or a group of animals because English apparently isn’t complicated enough.
- buffalo: (verb) to bully, bewilder, or baffle.
The different uses of the word can be seen below with the PROPER NOUN in all capital letters, the noun in bold text, and the verb in italics:
BUFFALO buffalo BUFFALO buffalo buffalo buffalo BUFFALO buffalo.
This tells us there are three groups of the critters. Each of those three groups comes from the city in New York. That makes them Buffalo buffalo, or, “bison from Buffalo,” if that helps. In the order that they appear, we will refer to them as Group #1, Group #2, and Group #3:
“GROUP #1 GROUP #2 buffalo buffalo GROUP #3.”
That is still confusing, so let’s assume for the moment that instead of the city in New York, we’re referring to three different cities: Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. Let’s also assume that instead of bison, we have three different types of high school students: nerds, jocks, and goths.
“Chicago nerds Detroit jocks buffalo buffalo Kansas City goths.”
Substituting the meaning of the verb, it would look like this:
“Chicago nerds Detroit jocks bully bully Kansas City goths.”
To further clarify things, let’s insert some words that are implied in the sentence’s usage:
“(The) Chicago nerds (that) Detroit jocks bully, (also) bully Kansas City goths.”
Going back to the original sentence, we should point out that although we are talking about only one city, Buffalo, New York, it is evident that there are plenty of bison from that city and not all of them are equal in status or manners:
- The first group of bison from Buffalo is bullied by the second group. They take out their frustration about this by bullying the third group.
- The second group picks on the first group. They appear to be at the top of the social hierarchy.
- The third group represents the goths of the bison world. They get picked on by the first group. Finding no other bison on whom they can vent their frustration, they are left with no other choice than to paint their hooves black and mope all day.
If you feel buffaloed by this sentence about Buffalo buffalo, you would find a sympathetic ear in My Fair Lady’s linguistic professor, Henry Higgins, when he musically asked, “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?”
Don’t give up, though. It was, after all, the same Professor Higgins who motivated his student by reminding her that “the majesty and grandeur of the English language is the greatest possession we have.”
When you finally work out the nuances of “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo,” you can reward yourself with the professor’s declaration, “By George, you’ve got it!” and join with him in a celebratory dance.
Now that you’ve got that worked out, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all with “Moses supposes his toeses are roses,” or “Chester chooses chestnuts, chewy cheese, and chives….”