Awesome sentences (Part I of II)

posted by John

One of the coolest things about language, and perhaps the single factor that allowed it to arise from the other basic human cognitive faculties, is recursion. Recursion, essentially, refers to the fact that human language is infinite, that there can be no longest sentence. What’s more, language possesses the property of being ‘discretely infinite,’ which means that you can make an infinite number of infinitely long utterances from a finite number of constituent parts. This is an ability unique to humans—no other animal has demonstrated the capacity for recursive language. Aren’t we special!

One way in which recursion manifests itself is in what’s known as ’embedding.’ This is nothing more than the ability to say [The girl [that Sandeep likes] is cute]. The brackets indicate that what we see is one sentence embedded within another. This has been used by linguists to show that language has a hierarchical structure and not a linear one, as ‘that Sandeep likes’ interrupts the matrix sentence ‘the girl is cute’ (a cool topic itself, to which I might turn in a later post).

The only thing limiting the amount of embedding we can do is what’s known as ‘processing capacity,’ which refers to the simple fact that our brains can only keep track of so many embedded structures at once.

But the problem of processing does lead to some really and truly cool sentences. These are technically grammatical sentences that seem utterly incomprehensible because they exceed our brain’s processing capacity. Give these sentences a try (only the first two are technically processing problems, the third is just interesting):

  1. Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.
  2. The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed.
  3. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

If you understood any of these sentences on your first read (and haven’t seen them before), you have super-human processing capacity. If they made almost no sense, then you’re probably more like the rest of us. Let’s see if we can parse them out.

What is so amazing about the first sentence is that if I had written “Bulldogs bulldogs fight fight,” you probably would have understood it. But when I add the second embedded clause (or rather when Noam Chomsky did, and I later pirated it for this post), it starts to look more like a fight song from a famous university than an English sentence. It can be parsed as follows: [Bulldogs [bulldogs [bulldogs fight] fight] fight]. What it actually means is: Bulldogs, whom bulldogs who fight other bulldogs fight, also, themselves, fight.

In the second sentence, we would, if we had the capacity, understand that a girl screamed because a cake hit her. The cake was baked by a baker that the owner fired. But when we read it as I wrote it above, all we see is a string of nouns followed by a string of verbs. To make it more comprehensible, we can say it as follows: The girl screamed because she was hit by the cake that the baker, who was fired by the owner, baked. Try adding more layers—it’s mindboggling.

The last sentence, on a first read, seems impossible. But take a clue from the fact that in several instances the word ‘buffalo’ is capitalized—like the city. Here, we’re dealing with a single word that can act as a plural noun (the animal), an adjective (from the city Buffalo), and a verb (meaning to bully or intimidate). Thus we have: Animals from Buffalo that animals from Buffalo bully bully [other] animals from Buffalo.

Isn’t language cool? Part two is coming soon. I’ll be writing about so-called garden path sentences. Things like, “The horse raced past the barn fell.”  Stay tuned!!