A Rhetorical Orthographic Pun

I was reviewing some work I did a week or so ago on an Akkadian ritual text when I ran across something that I hadn’t thought about the first time through. I had seen it but I didn’t consider its implications.
Take a look at Köcher’s transcription of the second half of line 11 of VAT 8242. Pay particular attention to the signs I underlined in red.

Köcher's transcription of the second half of line 11 of VAT 8242

The first sign in both underlined groups is the same. It has several possible readings, šá, ník, níg, níq, NINDA, GAR, NÍG (small letters represent phonograms; capital letters represent ideograms, mostly Sumerograms). Context and, on occasion, determinatives provide direction as to the correct reading.
I transliterate this,
normalize it,
nignakka burāša ana pan dšamaš išakkanan
and translate it,
“He places a juniper(?) censer before Shamash.” (more literally, “A juniper[?] censer before Shamash he places”)
I think we are dealing with a rhetorical, as opposed to a humorous, pun in this line. But it is an orthographic pun. One would never notice it if one heard this line read out loud. The underlined two sign group NÍG.NA is the most common way of writing the Sumerian loanword nignakka, “censer.” In the second underlined group, the same first sign stands for the Sumerogram GAR, the second is a phonetic determinative telling us that the associated Akkadian word ends with the sound /an/. GAR, from the the Sumerian word for “place” or “put,” stands for the Akkadian verb šakānu, “to place.” Here, one should read išakkan, “he places.” The expression ana pan dšamaš išakkanan, “he places before Shamash,” is a stock phrase in rituals. The scribe had other choices of how to write išakkan even within the stock phrase. However, he chose to write this stock phrase in its most conventional way. My guess is that the convention, if not this particular scribe, sought to emphasize a close association between the nignakka, “censer” and the act of placing it before Shamash. This way of writing binds the censer, NÍG.NA, and the placing, GAR(.AN), of the censer before Shamash more tightly than would be the case if either or both words were spelled out phonetically
While the -NA and the -AN greatly assist in understanding the words with which they are associated (the NA is required in NÍG.NA), I can’t help but wonder if there is a little phonetic game in play between these signs. One could properly understand GAR as išakkan without the phonetic determinative. It would be harder but it would be possible.
There is a danger in over interpreting these kinds of things but there is also a danger in not noticing them. Akkadian can be so much fun.

Köcher, Franz, Die babylonische-assyrische Medizin in Texten and Untersuchungen, Berlin: Gruyter, 1963-, text 323.

2 thoughts on “A Rhetorical Orthographic Pun”

  1. I think if I were a scribe looking at wedges all day, I’d start making things interesting by doing the kind of thing you’ve noticed. Of course, this is no historical argument. Just an “if I were a horse” kind of argument. Still, it’s worth thinking about, even if one could never prove that such is deliberate.

  2. Alan,
    Its hard to be certain that an isolated example is really an intentional pun rather than just a coincidence. But there are many isolated examples. Noegel, for example, has just about made a living pointing them out. He is also responsible for one of the best paper titles ever, “Fox on the Run: Catch a Lamssu by a Pun.” Many of his examples are purely orthographic.

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