Interview with Scott B. Noegel on “Wordplay” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Submitted by Rick Aguilar on

“Wordplay” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Scott B. Noegel, Ancient Near East Monographs Volume: 26,  SBL Press, 2021

This monograph offers a comparative study of the various functions that wordplay serves in ancient Near Eastern texts and provides a comprehensive taxonomy for the phenomenon. Languages covered include Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, biblical Hebrew, and Aramaic. The monograph also examines definitions of "wordplay" by exploring ancient conceptions of words and the generative role of scripts (consonantal, syllabic, and pictographic).

Also discussed are issues of terminology, genre, audience, grammaticality, interpretation, and methodology. The book further considers the distribution and preferences of these devices among the languages and discusses a number of principles and strategies that inform their creation, such as ambiguity, repetition and variation, delayed comprehension, metaphor and metonymy, clustering, and the use of rare words. The book concludes by suggesting potential avenues for future research.

You can download the book from SBL here.

What drew you to this topic?

I've been interested in this topic since before I became a graduate student. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to Cornell University to do my graduate work: Gary Rendsburg, who later became my advisor, was working on it quite a bit. I was also inspired by some of my undergraduate teachers: Alan Corée, Moshe Garsiel, and Yair Hoffman. Even then I saw there was an opportunity for growth in that fledgling field, so that was one part of my interest.

But also, I noticed that there was a kind of intellectual disdain for puns, however you want to define them, and it was really based on more contemporary and Western sensibilities and interests. No one in the ancient world winced at these devices: they were serious and present everywhere. And as I got deeper into Near Eastern literature generally, I realized that it wasn't just in the Hebrew Bible, or ancient Egyptian, or the Akkadian texts. These devices were so widespread that it got me thinking, especially in the cases of devices with very specific uses or syntax or framework for use: how did they make their way across geographic and cultural boundaries? I realized the ancient world was much smaller and more closely connected, at least in terms of the intelligentsia and the social production of texts. 

When I discovered the first so-called “Janus parallelism” in Akkadian literature, I realized that this material was incredibly widespread and deep. That's why I first collected the studies in Puns and Pundits—I wanted to show that this phenomenon was so widespread geographically and chronologically that it was hard to deny its existence. And once I had that on a firmer footing, I could embark on other studies to have it legitimized in the discipline.

Why did you choose to publish “Wordplay” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts with the Society for Biblical Literature?  

I specifically chose SBL because having the book be open access is important to me. I wanted it to be freely available and accessible worldwide.

Recently I gave a paper at an Egyptological conference, and one of the attendees made a comment—not during my talk—about various devices in the Tale of the Two Brothers. And I made the comment that this device is even more prevalent than their question indicated. And they said, “Well, actually, I got it from your book.” So it’s fascinating how quickly I got feedback: I had just published it and that person had access to the book. Typically, it takes seven to ten years for a book's contents to permeate scholarship. But open access has collapsed that timeline exponentially.

I notice “wordplay” in is quotes in the title of the book: why is that?

This is deliberate: I intended to problematize the word. I had some pushback from the publisher on that, actually. It wasn’t so much a philosophical issue: it just wasn’t in their format. But it was really important: the whole concept that's embedded into the first couple of chapters of the book is that the term “wordplay” is misleading.

It’s problematic in two ways. First, although many of the terms for it—Wortspeile, jeu de mots, even one of the Hebrew expressions, משחקי לשׁון (miśḥqe lashon), involve “play,” in antiquity there’s nothing playful about it; it is primarily performative in function.

And second, “word” is also problematic: the assumption, especially based on modern Western languages, is that the word is the most basic element of any literary device. But in other writing systems, like Akkadian or Egyptian, that’s just not the case. There, a sign is the most basic element and it can have all kinds of different values even within the same word. 

Then there was the general problem of “wordplay” being used by everybody for everything. Similarly, “alliteration” has been used for many distinct devices that look similar but have very different functions in the text, and this use masks those differences. So I define “alliteration” as a sonic effect, but separate the distinct functions. If we lose those differences, we lose sight of the intricacies. I set out to create a typology that restored these intricacies and jettisoned some of these older terms.

Is there an example you can give in translation?

It’s hard to give examples in translation, and that’s one of the things that this book underscores: it’s very difficult to convey multiple meanings simultaneously in another language. We see this already with various ancient textual witnesses like the Septuagint, where often a translator has to resort to adding another verse to his translation in order to capture a second meaning of a word.

Also, the writing system can make translation difficult. For example, in Akkadian, you might have a word written out with a series of signs that can be syllables or words in and of themselves. One sign in that word can have many different meanings that the reader can’t help seeing. So there are always two texts: the one read out loud, where you’d choose one reading of a word or sign, and the kind of inner-circle text that would have been discussed—just as we do now, in class—to consider the multiple meanings of words. But there's no room in translation for that. And I suppose that's fine because at least from the ancient standpoint, many of these devices would have been considered secrets. 

As far as examples, maybe the best place to start is to emphasize that in the ancient world, text and image are essentially the same thing. We differentiate them. But for the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, script was image because the script has pictographic origins and they still knew, even after thousands of years, what those origins were. 

So you often have Egyptian sculptures which can be read as hieroglyphs: a sculpture may be the infant Horus, with his hand to his mouth, but you don’t need the inscription to realize it's the sun god incarnate. Just because it's a sculptural three-dimensional form doesn't mean it's not a glyph. 

We also have dream or omen interpretations that are based on the multiple meanings of the image seen in a dream. Others are based on sound: in Egyptian, if you dream of pḥwy, your “rear end,” you’re going to come to your “end” (death).

That sounds a little glib.

It does sound a little humorous. But the performative function behind these omens, and the assumptions that go into creating them are vastly different than what we would consider purely literary or entertaining.

If someone has a dream full of enigmatic images, their first reaction is panic because it's a divine message that they don't understand. That’s the mission of the interpreter, the mantic, to give the dream a meaning that can be dealt with in some way. The expert establishes a direction for understanding the divine message. A dream cannot now mean anything, but must mean one thing. Interpretations render a divine judgment.

Whom do you see as the audience for your book? How might they use it?

I intended the book to be a kind of reference work, and that's one of the reasons for keeping all the examples. I also wanted it to help catalog devices, so we have a shared vocabulary, a shared set of possible functions, so that we are speaking the same language. Then we can delve more deeply into the details of these devices.

As for the audience, I imagine it's for people trained in one or more of these languages: I hope that, for example, Assyriologists will go to it and see that a device also occurs in Egyptian or Hebrew, and have a better understanding of how shared these devices are across different ancient cultures. And I think there's enough Greek in the book to be of interest to classicists, and I do adopt some terms from Greek literature to describe some of these devices.

Do you think being at UW has helped you in your writing process?

Yes, and I've always been happy here, and there are three reasons (at least). The first is that UW is a naturally transdisciplinary place. There are many different faculty working on many different things, and you can always tap somebody for answers or collaborate with them. I’m an adjunct professor in History, Comparative Religion, Classics, and several other departments, so there’s always this transdisciplinary conversation going on, which I think doesn't always happen as much at other universities. For example, Classics and the Near East do not always interact that closely, although that’s changing now. But even when I first came here, I was invited to participate in Classics events right away – it was very welcoming. In fact, I’m co-writing an article with Jim Clauss in Classics right now.

The second reason is really the quality of students, both undergraduate and graduate--they always surprise you. UW draws from the whole Pacific Northwest and beyond, so we have a very high level of students. And because of that we’re making discoveries together in class every day. It reminds me of the rabbinic saying, “I have learned a lot from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.”

The third part of this I think, and this really speaks to the people who have chaired or directed various departments and programs, is that I've always been allowed to do what I want to. At some universities I would have been pigeonholed as “the Bible guy” and only been able to teach that. Here I can teach Hebrew, but also Ugaritic, Egyptian, and art history. And at the same time, the transdisciplinary nature of the university allowed me to grow in certain areas where I had less familiarity.

And because of this, I published in areas outside of the Hebrew Bible, from Classics to Egyptology to Assyriology to Ugaritic and beyond. It's one of the reasons why a book like this was even possible—all of that transdisciplinarity, plus the influence and interest of the students.

You'll notice, by the way, that I dedicated the book to my students past, present, future, because scholars never want their works to be the end-all. At least I don't. I want students to take it to another level, make observations, find new ways, new avenues, new knowledge, etc. And book is just the first of its kind in many ways, and I want it to be appreciated and used.

Have you had any reactions to the book that you especially enjoyed or were surprised by?

I’ve been buoyed by reactions from students and other universities. I’ve gotten emails from all over the world, saying “I read your book and I saw this device in a text I’m working on. Do you think it's an example of this?” And often I say that I do. I'm always elated because they have taken it to another level. You know we're always building on the shoulders of giants in our scholarship; a great scholar is never just an innovator—they're a renovator. One must take what's come before and work with it and then also innovate and build something new. This book has been a labor of love for many decades, and when I see other people taking those observations further and finding something new, there's nothing more rewarding than that.

Written by Corinna Nichols, PhD Student, Near and Middle Eastern Studies