According to Frederick Ahl (Metaformations, 18), we have an irrefutable syllogism to demonstrate that puns aren’t found in serious poetry like the Aeneid: “Vergil is a great poet. Puns are not the stuff of great poetry. Therefore Vergil cannot be using puns.”

Except that Vergil seems to do just that, and so do many other ancient and early medieval writers. Cratylus notwithstanding, puns and other forms of wordplay, including etymological wordplay, were critical to ancient understandings of language, and how language describes and reveals reality. Ahl cites a study of Lucretius that concludes: “when the poet uses two similar sounding names within the same context, the reader should look to see whether he employs one word to suggest the other and to imply some sort of natural association of the two things represented” (18). Aural echoes might possibly reveal interconnections among the things words name.

Anyone who has read Augustine’s sermons will know this, but for many this is a sign of a decadent late-Latinate culture. Ahl doesn’t think so. He argues that puns are already important to thinkers in Republican Rome, and he advances the argument by analyzing Varro. Ahl concludes, “To ignore Varronian etymologies in Latin poetry - and their Cratylan equivalents in Greek - is to ignore an important dimension of the Greek and Roman mind” (25).

As with Lucretius, Varro isn’t dealing with wordplay in the way we think of it. It’s not a game on the surface of language. Rather, the similarities of sounds and syllables indicate “the relationship between words and reality as he perceived it” (24). When Varro suggests and etymology that links CAelum to C(H)Aos and CAvum (hollow), he’s offering a cosmology and an implied cosmogony: “‘Sky’ is created from the primeval ‘Chaos’ - a derivation consonant with Hesiodic cosmogony, as Varro is well aware. . . . As words are derived, so worlds are born, and vice versa. The ‘ca’ common to the two words indicates that CAelum owes its linguistic derivation to C(H)Aos,” just as the sky owes its real derivation to the chaotic abyss (24-5).

This is of a piece with the sexual metaphors that Varro uses to describe the “fertility” of poetic speech. Language is form him a “living organism, capable of being a parent to many different forms” (26). And because language is fertile, it is also capable of giving new insight into the nature of things.

Ahl’s 1985 book is one of the most enthralling works on language I’ve come across in a long while, full of import for biblical hermeneutics.

More on: Language, Linguistics

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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