A “trick sign” is a sign that's written to
deceive. It's designed to make a tablet difficult to read, to hide the secret
meaning of the story. Nu-nus is the most important trick sign on BE 31 28, the
story of The Princess Wife. In this way, it is much like mahX on Tablet #36, the
story of The Great Fatted Bull. Both tablets use many of the same trick signs,
but nu-nus appears only on BE 31 28.
nunus: It means "egg" or "an
Nunus, normal (left) and compressed (right).
As two signs stacked on top of each other, it
would be difficult to fit nunus within the narrow lines of a tablet, so naturally the
scribes found an easier way to write it, as shown above.
The word on the left looks like it should be pronounced as nu-nunus, since it is composed of the signs nu and nunus, but it is pronounced simply as nu-nus. Nu-nus is Emesal dialect for munus, meaning “woman”. Munus
is the sign that is most commonly used to mean “woman”. Nu-nus is rarely used. There
are 3,065 citations for munus on the ePSD and only 14 citations for nu-nus. The scribe
uses this rare sign as a way to help obscure the meaning of the text. The scribe also uses the sign in a very unusual manner.
nu-nus (normal) and the way it appears on BE 31,28
On line o16, nu-nus is written as nunus. Since it's written at the very beginning of the line, there’s no pretense about
including the nu portion of the sign. It’s a hint that the scribe intends to
use the sign this way (without nu) to mean “woman”. This led some modern Sumerologists
to translate the sign as nunus, “egg” rather than nu-nus,”woman”. The scribe is using the pronunciation of nunus rather than the literal signs for nu-nus. It's very clever.
Nu-nus is mentioned a second time in line o16. It would be
tempting to read this sign as nu-nus, “woman”, but it’s a trick. Nu is also the
Sumerian sign for negation (no, not, without). In this case, nu-nus means “no
woman”. The translation of this phrase is, “… Mulu has no power, no women, and no virtue.” (See line o16
and note the recurring appearance of the sign nu.)
So, does this sign mean “no woman” like the
one shown above? Not exactly. Now the negation applies to the preceding sign,
zu, meaning “to know”; i.e., Mulu “knows-not
women”. (See line r5.) The signs could also mean that Mulu "knows-not beads". Both meanings fit perfectly into the context of the sentence and the context of the story, as explained in line r5 of the Transliteration.
Nu-nus occurs again in the very next sentence
(r6). Okay, so now we are accustomed to the scribe’s tricks. This sign means
“no/not woman”, right? Wrong. This is
the only time on the tablet that the sign is used correctly. In this case,
nu-nus means what it’s supposed to mean; i.e., “woman”. The line translates as,
“All women are a prostitutes for men who plunder.”
The unusual way that nu-nus is used makes it difficult to translate the tablet, and it makes the meaning of the text ambiguous, which
was the intent all along. This is a subtle indication that the scribe is trying
to confuse the reader. If the scribe wanted to make his meaning clear, he would
have simply used munus, which is the standard sign for “woman”. That way, there
would be no confusion. Instead, the scribe uses nu-nus/nunus to keep the reader off balance.