Thursday, 10 June 2010

How Buffalo Can You Go?

Ok, so we're right in the middle of the exam period. The bad news is that this means there'll not be many posts for a while. The good news is that I've come up with something to take your mind off of revision for a few minutes!

What I have for you today is a sentence. There's nothing particularly special about it, because it's grammatically correct, yet unpunctuated. Normally, a sentence which just works is nothing to fuss over. Then again, most sentences don't read like this...

"Buffalo buffulo Buffalo buffalo bufflo buffalo Buffalo buffalo"

Yes, ladies and gents, this sentence actually works. Once you get into the nitty gritty, it's not hard to see why, either. So, without waiting around, let's nit and grit our way to an explanation.

What we have here is a simple trick using homonyms. Essentially, a homonym is a word with various unrelated meanings attached, each spelt and pronounced in exactly the same way. For example, "fluke" can mean part of an anchor, the fins of a whale, or a stroke of luck. They don't have to have the same origins in meaning (although I suspect the whale fins and anchor do - both are nautical terms and look similar, so it makes sense), the important thing is the identical end result.

The word "buffalo", then, has more meanings than we might have thought at a first glance. The first thing most of us think of is the big, bison-like creature found predominantly in America. That's one of the main uses here, true, but it's not the only one. There's hundreds of towns called "Buffalo" all over America, too, and that's a meaning in our sentence. It's also a colloquial alternative to "bully". That means we have a noun, proper noun, and verb with the same spelling - everything we need for our homonym sentence!

The parse tree to the right (yes, I'm using pictures now!) sets this out pretty clearly, or at least as clearly as anyone can, and shows how everything fits together to make a complete sentence - "S". But we might still be in the dark as to what the sentence actually means! Allow me to try and deconstruct...

"Buffalo (the animal) from the town of Buffalo, who other buffalo (the animal) from the town of Buffalo bully (or "buffalo"), also bullies buffalo from the town of buffalo."

I'll give you a minute or two to get your head around that one? Got it? Good. It's a bit tricky, but the meaning isn't the most important bit, really. All this does is give us a nice little exercise in how coincidental language development gives us such strange formulae as this. I doubt you'll ever need to worry about coming across one in the real world, mind, unless your the sort who feels like picking on huge horned animals. If you are, I doubt you'll live to tell anyone you buffaloed a buffalo from Buffalo...

TTFN, and good luck with the exams!