Shanghai shanghai buffalo Buffalo shanghai.

The sentence in the title (yes, it is a complete thought) is logically improbable, but grammatically possible. In fact Shanghai, a breed of chicken, in this sentence, those found in the city of Shanghai, would probably buffalo (overawe, bewilder, intimidate) Shanghai (the breed of chicken) from the city of Buffalo. I realize that this is not likely, but probably more likely than: Shanghai buffalo (unless they are water buffalo) buffalo Buffalo buffalo, or Buffalo buffalo shanghai Shanghai Shanghai. And we could go on with all the other combinations. But that’s not the point.

Buffalo (NY): Where the buffalo never roamed?

These sentences are actually take-offs on one often presented to Linguistics 101 students (undoubtedly to titillate our curiosity). The original sentence is: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct discusses this “seemingly nonsensical” but “grammatical” example on page 210 of the chapter entitled “Talking Heads” (or Location #3666 of your Kindle version). Recently one of my favorite blogs/radio programs, A Way with Words, also had some fun with this phenomenon which rekindled my interest. See link here for more about this sentence coined by William Rapaport.

This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the examples are really to illustrate an important point about English: the ambiguity that results from polysemy (from Greek, many meanings). Compounding this ambiguity is English’s comparative lack of morphology and arbitrary rules of capitalization. For example, there are alternatives for the plural form of bison: buffalo, buffalos or buffaloes (depending on which dictionary you consult). It’s not always obvious though which is a noun and which is a verb without the -s or -es plural marker on the noun. But the verb form following a singular noun would have to take the third-person singular -s marker, hence: This buffalo buffaloes (or buffalos) other buffalo (or again, buffalos/buffaloes). But it actually isn’t that far-fetched. These are extreme examples, but many more – subtly, insidiously – exist to trip us up. In fact, if all instances were this extreme, it would be easier than finding the ambiguous little devils that hide around syntactic(al) corners and lurk in the rhetorical shadows.

In all these sentences both Buffalo and Shanghai are nouns, proper nouns and function as adjectives; buffalo and shanghai are both verbs. Moreover, the name of the breed of chicken can either be Shanghai or shanghai, just to keep it interesting.

Shanghai, commonly called Cochin now

Similarly the following sentence is also grammatical: Shanghai Shanghai Shanghai Shanghai shanghai shanghai Shanghai Shanghai. (Although some editors might lowercase the name of the breed of chicken and then the sentence would read: Shanghai shanghai Shanghai shanghai shanghai shanghai Shanghai shanghai. Note also that by uppercasing the name of the breed the title of this blog would be: Shanghai Shanghai buffalo Buffalo Shanghai.

Confused? Whoa, was it difficult to keep the casing straight while writing this blog. In my opinion, English is the undisputed word wizard – and some magic could prove helpful. This brings me to an important point about the challenges polysemy (and lack of morphology – and inconsistent capitalization) present to developing Tansa’s algorithms. Determining the word class (part of speech), and the number of the noun (singular or plural), the form of the verb (third-person singular versus the other five), etc., is compounded by the lack of clear markers. If English simply showed agreement between adjectives and nouns, for example, as many other languages do, the ambiguity would be partially reduced. While it is relatively easy for a person to immediately distinguish nouns, adjectives and verbs in a sentence (not these obviously), it is a Herculean (or herculean) task for a software program, that is more specifically, for its engineers.

polysemy: Linguistics the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2009.

(NB: Let’s not forget another monkey wrench (or spanner): the capitalization in titles and headlines – then even the verbs in these sentences would be capitalized!)

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