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?

  • Side note. Solomon 2:12 is another metaphor for the land being filled with milk and honey. The flowers are the source of honey, and the dove produces crop milk to feed it's young.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 14:17

6 Answers 6


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.

  • So it's more of an issue of transitioning from Old English to modern English than from Hebrew to English.
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 20:34
  • 7
    @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
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 22:48
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 3:46
  • @MukeTever Excellent point
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 14:18

It has been said elsewhere that the Hebrew word 'tsav' in relation to 'turtle/dove' refers in Leviticus 11.29 to a creature that "creepeth upon the earth", with the specific creature being unidentified in the text. This comes directly from the Hebrew, having no connection with later Latin or derived English onomatopoeic interpretations for the 'turtle' in 'turtledove'.

It will be seen, on observing this type of dove, that the wing-pattern, when the wings are closed, form a quite precise representation of a turtle (or tortoise) shell (in ornithology, birds are most often named after colour, pattern, or shape). The configuration is very distinctive, is not to be found on other doves (possibly not even on any other bird) and mere observation in the ancient world would explain the nomenclature. This would account for its usage in the Song of Solomon and other early sources.


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).


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

  • The word "tortoise" in Lev 11:29 KJV is a different word.
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 10:42

While animal identification in these ancient texts is often difficult to make with any certainty whatsoever I think it is possible to show significant evidence that:

  • the Song reference is to a bird
  • the bird is NOT a dove

The reason I say that is this verse:

Gen 15:9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." Gen 15:10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.

So there is a word for "dove" and the word translated "turtle" in the KJV is a different word. And Genesis 15:10 refers to "birds" which must be the dove plus another bird.


I see it has been a while since this subject was discussed. I believe the argument can be made that by the use of the original word, it would be possible that it actually means, "turtle". We try to explain it away with using the word "turtle dove" which of course makes sense. The explanation has also been made that "turtle" would be synonymous with our modern word, "turtle dove". The trouble being, that all the explanations always lead back to translating the word as a dove. May I ask a question? Why can we not leave it as turtle? An argument above has been made for that. Is there a reason that we want it to say dove instead of turtle?? It would appear to me that most people today are so far removed from rural life that they do not have a clue. It makes perfect sense that the KJV translators put turtle there and I think they knew what they were doing. You see, I've lived my entire life on a farm. In the spring of the year, when the weather warms up one of the first things that happens is the frogs start to sing. Now most people hear the sounds of the "peepers" and don't give it a thought. However, not all the croaking or peeping is made by frogs. Turtles have a voice. They only use it when mating but they do have a voice and it is one of the earliest sounds we hear in the spring so the passage doesn't need to be made into a bird cooing. On the contrary, doves spend the whole winter here. They coo all the time. That's not a "sign of spring" but hearing the voice of the turtle is. Let God be true! I believe the King James translators knew what they were doing and got it right.

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Be sure to check out the site tour! The reason it has been a while since this was discussed is that we aren't really a discussion site. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references, so we would love to see you argue this point and would love to see your references to support this argument! While you may ask a question, we suggest you do that by clicking the "Ask a Question" link at the top right, but be sure the Q isn't a duplicate! Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 4:32
  • (-1) because Genesis 15:10 indicates that it was a bird of some kind.
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 10:39
  • Of course the King James translators "knew what they were doing", but that doesn't mean they had enough evidence in front of them to get everything right - especially when it came to obscure creature names in a dead language. 'Unicorns' are the obvious example, where even King-James-Only advocates admit the translation is incorrect, and all attempt to find an explanation for what a 'unicorn' really is. For some reason it's okay for them to say a unicorn is really a rhino, but a turtle can't be a turtle-dove, or any other kind of dove for that matter.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 7:42

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