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What a Herd of Confused Bison from Upstate New York Can Teach Us About Our Language

By Andrew Swerlick Posted: 02/04/2008
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My roommate from Hong Kong once made the comment that English makes no sense. At the time I sort of dismissed his criticism. Sure, English is known for some strange and Byzantine rules, but I figured Chinese had to have its own set of equally bizarre quirks. I figured his comment was just the lament of any speaker who prefers their native tongue to what they learned second or third.

Then however, I discovered this sentence: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Simply repeating the word buffalo eight times is in fact a perfectly grammatically correct sentence. Alright Jimmy, you were right, English makes absolutely no sense.

For those of you curious about just how the above is actually proper English, the best place to go would be Wikipedia, which actually has an article on the sentence that includes diagrams, pictures of buffalo and an mp3 file of somebody reading the entire article out loud, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”’s and all. For the lazy, however, here’s a hint. At its heart, the sentence revolves around three different meanings of the word buffalo. The first is Buffalo the city in New York, the second is buffalo the animal, and the third is buffalo the verb — meaning to confuse and intimidate. Get it yet? Don’t worry, neither do I.

The weirdness of the English language becomes even more apparent when you start probing into the history of some of its words. This Christmas I used some of my Amazon.com gift card credit to purchase The Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto. While some of you may be skeptical of the entertainment value of such a purchase, so far the book has been worth its weight in gold as bathroom reading material. Take for example the word pagan. Its roots have nothing to do with religion, instead its original meaning was simply something stuck in the ground as a landmark.

Over time it was extended to refer not just to the landmark itself, but the area around it, and then finally the people living there. Eventually it came to mean any citizen of a town or city. When Christianity came along with the notion that its followers were metaphorical soldiers of God, to be a mere citizen meant you were outside the faith — a heathen — where the meaning of the word has finally settled today.

For those of you less excited about the joys of etymology, you may be wondering why any of this is important. But I think both of these examples — the triple meanings of the word buffalo and the bizarre semantic shifts of pagan — both point to a larger, more relevant phenomena: the fact that language is in part very subjective. We often forget this because in most interactions the subjectivity of language is not terribly important — we can make ourselves understood even with large gaps between what is said and what is perceived.

But when rigor is needed, when both parties have to agree precisely on what is being talked about, this becomes a problem. As antonfire (someone’s Internet nickname) pithily put in a post on a forum I read, “Most philosophical disagreements that I’ve seen are basically ‘This word should mean this!’ ‘No, this word should mean that!’”

Take, for example, the always popular argument about the existence of free will. It seems like a simple enough question, but what if we start thinking about the words involved. What do we mean by will? Is it decision-making capability?

Is it some sort of spiritual concept related to the soul? And what exactly is it free from? Any outside influence? Does that mean that the will functions in a random nature? Is random the same as free? Suddenly, the debate gets a whole lot more complicated.

Or in a more practical situation, look at the debate over some kind of universal right to health care. What is health care? Does it mean a right to be cared for when sick or does it mean access to preventative care as well? What is sickness for that matter? Does mental illness count? What about cosmetic problems? And if we’re including preventative care, then what exactly does that mean? After all, everything we do can impact our health, can’t it?
Americans are known to love a good verbal fight. We’re always eager to see a good argument, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have this never-ending set of presidential debates.

But maybe we need to tone down our excitement a little, take a step back before we start duking it out and make sure we’re all on the same page of the dictionary. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting buffaloed by the strange twists and turns of our language.

Asst. Entertainment Editor Andrew Swerlick is a College senior from Atlanta.

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