1 of 3
1
tortoise/turtle
Posted: 31 May 2012 08:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1189
Joined  2007-04-28

I saw an episode of Oprah in which there was a skype link to a guy who kept tortoises in his basement and his wife good-naturedly complained about his obsession. They both said tortoises and Oprah would echo this and then, later, unconsciously revert to turtle. Turtle is clearly used indiscriminately in the States for both as with the Teenage Mutant Ninja ones - tortoise seems to be a specialist usage. In the UK everyone knows tortoises walk and turtles swim so how come this distinction has been lost in the States? I’ve occasionally come across ‘ground turtle’ in American writing but also, in American documentaries, the specific giant Galapagos tortoise, not turtle.
This suggests tortoise is known in American vernacular speech but ignored.

If LH were to edit a populist American nonfiction book with the sentence “Darwin kept turtles (meaning tortoises) in his back yard (garden)” would he change it to tortoise or ground turtle or leave well enough alone?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 10:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3332
Joined  2007-01-29

In the UK everyone knows tortoises walk and turtles swim so how come this distinction has been lost in the States?

Who knows?  These things happen.

I’ve occasionally come across ‘ground turtle’ in American writing but also, in American documentaries, the specific giant Galapagos tortoise, not turtle. This suggests tortoise is known in American vernacular speech but ignored.

I don’t understand your point here.  American documentaries are not representative of American vernacular speech. Scientists, of course, maintain the distinction, as they do many distinctions that are not part of vernacular speech.

If LH were to edit a populist American nonfiction book with the sentence “Darwin kept turtles (meaning tortoises) in his back yard (garden)” would he change it to tortoise or ground turtle or leave well enough alone?

I would leave it.  Americans do not, in my experience, talk about tortoises (unless they’re quoting a documentary they just saw).  To me, “tortoise” is purely a literary term.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 10:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1880
Joined  2007-02-19

If Darwin indeed kept tortoises in his back yard (or alternatively, if he didn’t), and not turtles, the statement “Darwin kept turtles in his back yard” is simply a misstatement of fact, not a deviation in style or grammar. Many, if not most, published books, whether or not they have passed revision by a copy editor, are chock-a-block with misstatements of fact. Is it a copy editor’s function to separate fact from non-fact in the text he/she {s/he ;-} edits? I suspect not.

Tortoises and turtles remain different kinds of animals, even if a whole lot of people are ignorant of the fact --- and not only tortoises and turtles.....

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

O.NASH (may his tribe increase!)

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2738
Joined  2007-01-31

Tortoises and turtles remain different kinds of animals

They are groups of animals that have different names in your dialect, but not in everyone’s. In vernacular American English, the term “turtle” covers all chelonians.  Consider this definition from Merriam-Webster Online:

turtle: any of an order (Testudines syn. Chelonia) of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine reptiles that have a toothless horny beak and a shell of bony dermal plates usually covered with horny shields enclosing the trunk and into which the head, limbs, and tail usually may be withdrawn.

Edit: And on the flip side, in British English tortoise seems to be the inclusive term, at least according to the OED:

tortoise1a. A four-footed reptile of the order Chelonia, in which the trunk is enclosed between a carapace and plastron, formed by the dorsal vertebræ, ribs, and sternum; the skin being covered with large horny plates, commonly called the shell.
The Chelonia are usually divided into Land-tortoises (Testudinidæ), Marsh-tortoises (Emydæ), River-tortoises (Trionycidæ), and Marine tortoises (Chelonidæ), in which the feet are compressed into flippers or paddles. The last are now commonly distinguished as turtles; but this name is sometimes extended to species of the Emydæ and Trionycidæ. By some zoologists the name ‘tortoise’ is confined to the terrestrial genus Testudo and its immediate congeners; see also terrapin n.1

I strongly suspect that many languages don’t even bother with separate words for terrestrial and aquatic/marine chelonians (as English gets by with “snail” regardless of whether the specific species lives on land, in fresh water, or in the sea).

[ Edited: 31 May 2012 11:30 AM by Dr. Techie ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Avatar
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  333
Joined  2007-02-13

Both words have the same lineage, according to MW ("French tortue”)

MW says of tortoise “any of a family (Testudinidae) of terrestrial turtles”.

I have always known what a tortoise is, yet I would insist on “tortoise” only if I really wanted to get beat up at recess.  Such an environment tends to compel one to say “turtle” in all cases. 

And then there’s terrapin.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1880
Joined  2007-02-19

Thank you for the elucidation, Dr. T. Now you’ve got me wondering about crocodiles and alligators. I’m afraid of what Wikipedia will say..............

;-}

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 11:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  694
Joined  2007-02-07

To me, “tortoise” is purely a literary term.

I think that depends on where you live. Here in the Southwest, we’re familiar with “desert tortoises” and the use of “tortoise” to refer to land animals as opposed to “turtle” for aquatic animals is not uncommon. There are laws… in California, you need a permit to posses a desert tortoise. Calling them desert turtles marks you as somewhat of a rube.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 01:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4464
Joined  2007-01-03

If Darwin indeed kept tortoises in his back yard (or alternatively, if he didn’t), and not turtles, the statement “Darwin kept turtles in his back yard” is simply a misstatement of fact, not a deviation in style or grammar.

I’m slogging through Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things right now, and while I’m still digesting it and know just enough to be dangerous, the above statement has some fundamental philosophical assumptions behind it, especially that categories of objects have objective criteria that define them. It’s only a misstatement if one considers turtle and tortoise to be separate categories. If one views the words as synonyms, as many Americans do, the statement is correct.

And to say that there is an objective category of turtle that is distinct from tortoise, runs into a lot of philosophical problems, like what are the objective criteria that distinguish categories?

In short, turtle and tortoise are (mostly) synonymous in the American dialect, with turtle being the more common term. (If you want to be really nitpicky, what Americans usually call turtles aren’t tortoises, but actually terrapins.)

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3332
Joined  2007-01-29

I think that depends on where you live. Here in the Southwest, we’re familiar with “desert tortoises”

Well, sure.  I said “To me,” after all, not “To all Americans.” But if you use “tortoise” pretty much exclusively in “desert tortoises,” then it’s not really an alternative to “turtle” but an element of a phrasal unit.  You may well be correct that “the use of ‘tortoise’ to refer to land animals as opposed to ‘turtle’ for aquatic animals is not uncommon,” but that’s a separate issue.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 02:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  694
Joined  2007-02-07

I understand what you mean by the tortoise/turtle distinction being a separate issue from the phrase “desert tortoise”, but for many of us it was all part and parcel of growing up in an area where these beasts are common. We saw them on guided tours of the local zoo and people would bring them to “show and tell” and the spiel we got as kids invariably went into the tortoise/turtle issue.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 09:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  392
Joined  2007-10-20

Dave:

In short, turtle and tortoise are (mostly) synonymous in the American dialect, with turtle being the more common term. (If you want to be really nitpicky, what Americans usually call turtles aren’t tortoises, but actually terrapins.)

For good or ill this reminds me of a tale my Oklahoman step-mother’s father told. He must have been born around 1900 or so. In that story he recounted a “rock” in some bottom land that had existed from before the time that men who tilled the soil had entered there.

One day the farmer who owned the land ran his plow up against the rock and saw it was bleeding. He investigated and turned over the rock, thereby discovering that it was a “terrapin.” Not a tortoise or a turtle. This teller of tales was also a man who said “prise bar” instead of “pry bar.” Then there was the story of the horned toad trapped in the concrete of the cornerstone of the building that was demolished eighty years after its construction, yet the toad hopped away when it was set free.

It’s kind of like mythology.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 09:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2738
Joined  2007-01-31

Interesting to note that although it, too, starts with a t-r syllable, terrapin is derived from Algonquin and completely unrelated to turtle or tortoise.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 09:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2881
Joined  2007-02-26

Tortoises and turtles remain different kinds of animals

Unless you are using a dialect in which the word tortoise is not used, and in which turtle is applied to all members of Chelonia.

Interesting to note that although it, too, starts with a t-r syllable, terrapin is derived from Algonquin and completely unrelated to turtle or tortoise.

I agree that that is interesting.

I’m afraid of what Wikipedia will say

WP does a pretty good job of covering the issues here.


Although the word is used by biologists in reference to the family Testudinidae only, in colloquial usage it is often used to describe many land-dwelling Testudines. The inclusiveness of the term depends on the variety of English being used.[2]

* British English normally describes these reptiles as “tortoises” if they live on land.
* American English tends to use the word “tortoise” for land-dwelling species, including members of Testudinidae, as well as other species such as box tortoises, though use of “turtle” for all chelonians is as common.
* Australian English uses “tortoise” for terrestrial species, including semi-aquatic species that live near ponds and streams. Traditionally, a “tortoise” has feet (including webbed feet) while a “turtle” has flippers.

EDIT: Note that the UK common usage also differs from the technical terminology, in that land-dwelling Testudines that are not Testudinidae will be called tortoises in common British English.

EDIT2: corrected mistake in previous EDIT

[ Edited: 31 May 2012 09:48 PM by OP Tipping ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 31 May 2012 10:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1880
Joined  2007-02-19

Turtles are reptiles of the order Testudines (the crown group of the superorder Chelonia), characterised by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs that acts as a shield.[2] “Turtle” may either refer to the Testudines as a whole, or to particular Testudines which make up a form taxon that is not monophyletic.

After reading the above (and quite a lot of other stuff), I am withdrawing from this discussion, realizing that I should never have got into it. After withdrawing, I intend to spend some time contemplating a saying my mother was fond of quoting: en boca cerrada no entran moscas ("no flies enter a closed mouth").

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 June 2012 06:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1189
Joined  2007-04-28

In British usage terrapins are freshwater turtles and can therefore be easily kept as pets. I had some red-eared sliders when I was a teenager and they were lousy pets, never learning to trust you unlike tortoises which are pretty fearless and can be hand-fed.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 June 2012 06:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1189
Joined  2007-04-28

Just thought. Is Aesop’s The Hare and the Tortoise turtle in American editions?

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 3
1