It’s true. I’m a little bored this week… I found myself musing on one of the most interesting/idiotic (a surprisingly permeable boundary) conundrums in linguistics – what are the longest syntactically complex one-word sentences possible in English? In The Language Instinct (1994: 210), Stephen Pinker mentions the following interesting 8-word effort:
Buffalo buffalo, Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
This sentence is only possible if the following assumptions are accepted:
Buffalo can be an adjective (indicating that something comes from the city of Buffalo), a noun (obviously the animal) whose plural form is invariable (1 buffalo, 2 buffalo, etc.), and a verb (meaning ‘to bully’). Grammatically, it includes a non-defining relative clause (note the commas) and relative pronoun ellipsis. It could be paraphrased as follows:
Buffalo bison which Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison.
According to several sources, this sentence has been reinvented on a number of occasions (presumably by very bored linguists), the earliest published version of which is probably in Dmitri Borgmann’s 1967 book Beyond Language: Adventures in Words and Thought. See here for William J. Rapaport’s authoritative history of the Buffalo sentence. Rapaport himself extended this to 10 words by arguing that ‘to Buffalo buffalo’ could be an unhyphenated verb meaning ‘to buffalo in a way unique to Buffalo’, as we might say ‘to Tenessee-waltz’. Rapaport omits the hyphens in his version, but I’d say that most of us would prefer them in, as here:
- Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo-buffalo Buffalo-buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Rapaport helpfully parses it using a wider variety of nouns, thus:
- “Boston mice [that] Boston cats “Boston-chase” “Boston-eat” Boston cheese.”
Both Rapaport and Pinker also point out that through infinite embedding the sentence could be extended indefintely (The buffalo that buffalo the buffalo that buffalo the buffalo… etc.), but let’s set this aside to see if there are other, longer sentences that do not appeal either to infinite embedding while still remaining syntactically complex (i.e. avoiding a list of, for example, imperatives: ‘Work, work, work, etc.).
Anyway, I found myself pondering alternatives, initially considering other words that display similar grammatical features and homonyms (e.g. fish, sheep, etc.), then I wondered whether perhaps the record could be broken by drawing on reduplication (e.g. bye bye, night night, etc.), and then I stumbled upon pooh pooh, to my surprise and delight.
Pooh is amazing whichever way you look at it. As well as being significantly funnier than Buffalo, it ticks almost all the same grammatical boxes AND allows for reduplication. Here are the lexical particles from which a number of surprisingly long ‘1-word’ sentences could potentially be drafted:
- Pooh (pronoun, ellipsis of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character)
- Pooh (adjective, denoting something associated with, belonging to, or, importantly, made by Winnie the Pooh – you can see where I’m going here…)
- pooh pooh (verb, meaning to belittle or criticise an idea)
- pooh (pooh) (verb, meaning to defecate)
- pooh pooh (noun, meaning excrement)
- pooh! (exclamation of disgust, esp. at a foul smell)
With regard to all the above, a number of dictionaries (e.g. Cambridge, Collins) allow for two spellings (pooh, poo), and the use or omission of a hyphen in the reduplicated forms.
Of course, as you have surely already spotted, the conundrum is not yet solved. As we all know very well, pooh is countable and requires the -s morpheme in the plural. Whether we are talking about the bear, or the substance that bears leave in the woods, it would clearly be 2 Poohs or 2 pooh poohs, so the sentence structure in the Buffalo sentence would not work. Either we pluralise the pooh, or we use the 3rd person verb form:
Pooh pooh poohs, Poohs pooh pooh, pooh pooh Pooh pooh poohs. (lots of bears and poohs)
Pooh pooh pooh, Pooh pooh poohs, pooh poohs Pooh pooh pooh. (3rd person verb)
I began considering other potential sentence structures, and started to experiment with pooh imperatives. You can get quite far with this line of enquiry:
Pooh pooh pooh! (ordering someone to produce pooh)
Pooh Pooh pooh pooh! (ordering someone to produce pooh similar in type or character to the pooh of our eponymous hero)
Pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh! (ordering someone to criticise the pooh of the famous bear)
Pooh, pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh! (ordering the bear himself to criticise his own pooh)
But I couldn’t get beyond 6 poohs. I was suffering from what linguists commonly call ‘verbal constipation’. Then, in a manner similar to Archimedes’ bath moment, I happened to be on the toilet when it came to me:
“Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”
This well-known saying demonstrates a syntactically complex sentence in English, involving 2 clauses, both of which begin with imperatives (or arguably an elided conditional). Another example of the same structure is: “Pay peanuts, get monkeys.”
So theoretically, somebody could give the following advice:
“If you criticise Winnie the Pooh’s pooh, you yourself will produce similar pooh.”
Or to put that more clearly:
“Pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh, pooh Pooh pooh pooh.”
I had made it to 9 poohs! Now I had my inspiration, I stretched out another couple of poohs by reduplicating the verbe-de-toilette (as a ‘native-speaker’ child might do), and by using the vocative case, cautioning a bear with the soon-to-be familiar advice:
“Pooh, pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh, pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh.”
I had managed 11 poohs in a row! A record of very dubious sorts. Buffalo may be able to buffalo buffalo, but they can’t pooh pooh Pooh pooh pooh, and if they did, Pooh, we now know that they’d probably end up pooh poohing Pooh pooh pooh! Pooh!
But the last word of advice must surely go to General Melchett (Stephen Fry) of Blackadder, who warns of the dangers of pooh poohing pooh poohs”!
All Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore images adapted from www.disneyclips.com
My blog now retweeted by Stephen Pinker: