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Ernie Harwell was famous for starting his first baseball broadcast of the Detroit Tigers spring with the following quote:

Song of Solomon 2:11-12 (KJV)
11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

It sounds funny to have a "turtle" pop up at the end of the quote, but I see that modern versions translate that word differently:

Song of Songs 2:11-12 (NIV)
11 See! The winter is past;
   the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
   the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
   is heard in our land.

So how did the King James translators end up using "turtle" instead of some sort of bird?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Wiktionary claims turtle is an old word for dove (thus the term turtledove), derived from the Latin onomatopoeia turtur. Thus, in the language of the day, turtle did indicate the bird. See also Dictionary.com.

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So it's more of an issue of transitioning from Old English to modern English than from Hebrew to English. –  swasheck Apr 10 '12 at 20:34
@swasheck: It is worth noting that in Hebrew there are separate terms for the related genuses "dove" (Columba), yonah, and "turtledove" (Streptopelia), tor (the latter may be the source of the Latin turtur, or they may both be independent onomatopoeic coinages). The verse mentioned in the question uses the latter; v. 14 of that chapter (and other places in Songs) use the former. So the KJV translators were probably trying to preserve that distinction, whereas NIV doesn't. –  Alex Apr 10 '12 at 22:48
@swasheck Yes, but not "Old English", just old(er) English--Old English (with a capital Old) is specifically a stage of English that ended about six hundred years before the KJV was written. –  Muke Tever Apr 12 '12 at 3:46
@MukeTever Excellent point –  swasheck Apr 12 '12 at 14:18

The Hebrew word is "Towr", not "tsav" as another answer suggests. This word is onomatopoetic, denoting an animal making the "towr" sound. The word mentioned by the other answer, "tsav" (or possibly he means "tsavah"), means to command or order.

The Hebrew word "towr" is used several places, e.g. Gen 15:9 (Abraham offering to God), Lev 1:14 ("turtledoves or young pidgeons"), Jer 8:7 ("turtledove and the crane and the swallow"), Ps 74:19 ("O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever."). It does not, as has been claimed, mean "frog". It would be weird if the frog, an unclean, despised animal were used in a positive sense in the Song of Solomon or any of these other places(cf. Rev 16:3, "And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.").

As @Also Gone Quiet pointed out, "turtle" is archaic for "tutledove" (see his excellent answer).

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Translation of the Hebrew word tsav is a matter of both contention and historical evolution, but it has absolutely nothing to do with turtle doves.

The word refers to a creature that "creepeth upon the earth" (Leviticus 11:29). The specific animal is unclear, but there is evidence in such sources as the Talmud and in translations such Greek (the Septuagint) and Aramaic that the word may have referred to lizards or to frogs and/or toads. Evidence for an interpretation as "turtle" seems not to appear until the 11 century.

Neither turtles nor, in general, lizards are voiced, but in the spring after the rains, frogs are extremely vocal - a perfect fit with the Solomonic context.

See the fine summary by Elon GIlad at http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day/.premium-1.553506

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The word in Shir HaShirim isn't tsav, though. –  Gone Quiet Oct 27 '13 at 0:36

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