The Voice of the Turtle

by John J. Miller on May 11, 2010 · 4 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

My short obituary of Ernie Harwell last week noted that he would begin his first broadcast of the baseball season by quoting from the Song of Solomon: “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.”

A reader wrote in: “That’s ‘voice of the turtle-dove’ not ‘voice of the turtle.’ Do turtles even have a voice?”

I’ve wondered the same thing. In the King James Bible, however, the verse really does refer to the “voice of the turtle.” And that’s how Harwell actually spoke the line. Yet many modern editions of the Bible refer to the “voice of the turtledove.” The original Hebrew uses the word tor, which means turtledove. (Previously, I’ve posted about “the Horns of Moses,” another dilemma of biblical translation.)

The turtle translation is one of the peculiarities of the King James Bible, which is the subject of today’s NRO podcast with Robert Alter, author of Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Next week’s podcast: Ben Wildavsky on global universities.

  • Nachum

    The word “turtle” originally referred to the animal we call the “turtledove,” or just plain “dove.” English-speaking sailors applied it to this strange new animal the Spanish called “tortoise,” as the name sounded similar. After that, the “dove” part was added to (or replaced) the bird “turtle” almost everywhere except some parts of the bible.

    The Hebrew “tor” and English “turtle” (from the Latin) both refer to the sound the bird makes, which is perhaps why this verse keeps it.

    You don’t want to know about how “rabbit” came to replace “coney” in the Bible.

  • Neuf

    Interesting topic…it appears that “turtle” in the English of that time could refer to the turtledove. A contemporary example would be Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.

    Still, even if it is not strictly an error of the translators, I can readily imagine the confusion it must cause modern casual readers! The same word is translated as “turtle” in four other places, including some references to sacrifice offerings in Leviticus (made fairly apparent to be referring to the bird by context).

  • If I remember right, there’s a “Voice of the Turtle” in one of Lewis Carroll’s books. A lot of Carroll’s stuff seems relevant, today.
    The “Red Queen” has to be Sarah Palin, and perhaps one might identify some of the characters at Carroll’s “Mad Tea Party.”
    A movie that starred Ronald Reagan was named “Voice of the Turtle,” and Alvin Greene, a US Senate nominee from South Carolina, had the nickname “Turtle” in high school, because he was an introvert.
    If Greene could only memorize some of the lines from Reagan’s old movies, maybe he could become a “Great communicator,” too!


    KJV only folks will not admit that turtledove is what is being referenced here, not turtles…their love for a 17th century English translation overrules their common sense

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