Do you understand the title of this post?
Perhaps if I write it out so that it is free from the constraints of being a title, buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Still not sure? Here is a version with hyperlinks to the meaning of each word.
Can’t be bothered to click on the links? I shall write an explanation: The first and last ‘buffalo’s in that sentence refer to the animal, the third one is the city and the second is North American slang meaning to confuse.
So the title of this post means ‘Buffalo confuse other buffalo from Buffalo, New York’.
Did I buffalo you there? I’m not clever enough to have thought of that by myself, I heard it on a radio show, hosted by the brilliant Stephen Fry, called Fry’s English Delight. The show went into detail about a number of interesting facets of the English language, usually about how it has developed over the years or fun bits of wordplay.
It was during the buffalo discussion that they mentioned how ‘had’ can be placed many times in a row in a sentence and it still makes sense grammatically. Despite my love of wordplay and puns I’ve never been able to get my head around that.
This kind of wordplay seems to exist in Japanese too. To me though it really seems to accentuate the fact that Japanese is almost impossible to read if you don’t use kanji. Take this as an example …
Now in all fairness if you can’t read hiragana or katakana either it is pretty impossible to read Japanese as well. I shall romanise it for you, bare in mind that it loses something in translation here because “は” can be read in two different ways.
Haha wa haha haha no haha wa hahaha to warau
I remember when I showed some Japanese friends this and at first they were indeed buffaloed, I tried to explain the meaning using a mix of Japanese and English and despite the fact they had blank faces, they insisted they understood. I knew they weren’t telling me the whole truth, maybe not to hurt my feelings or something, I’ve noticed Japanese people do this a lot.
So I persisted and showed them the same sentence written in kanji:
The look on their faces was priceless, the moment they realised the meaning of the sentence their moods changed and it was all thanks to the kanji. Due to the lack of spaces in Japanese, having kanji to break up the sentence really is necessary to get any meaning out of a block of text. Now it is easy to tell that the sentence means a mother is laughing over the other laughing mums.
Here is another, to do with gardens:
Niwa niwa niwa niwatori ga iru.
Add the magic kanji and you get:
So now you know the kanji you can easily decipher that this sentence means that two chickens are in the garden. Which can be a very important piece of information depending on the situation.
Kanji does appear to be a bit of a double edged sword though. Due to the vast amount of possible readings each one has, Japanese is the only language where I have seen grown adults have an argument about how to correctly read a sentence.