The determiner of the turtle is heard in our land

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One useful way to look at the "The case of the disappearing determiners" is to compare bible translations, because this controls to some extent for variation in the underlying message. So as a first tentative step on that path, I compared the  Song of Solomon in the King James Version, first published in 1611, with the Song of Solomon in the Message Bible, published between 1993 and 2002.

The overall statistics for the Song of Solomon in the two sources show a fall of about 38% relative:

Version # words # the % the
kjv 2663  175  6.57%
msg 2737  111  4.06%

And here are a couple of specific verses to compare:

kjv 2:12: 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;
msg 2:12: Spring flowers are in blossom all over. The whole world's a choir – and singing! Spring warblers are filling the forest with sweet arpeggios.

kjv 2:17: Until the day break , and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.
msg 2:17: Until dawn breathes its light and night slips away. Turn to me, dear lover. Come like a gazelle. Leap like a wild stag on delectable mountains!

Needless to say, there's a fair amount of chapter-to-chapter variation, which is weakly correlated (r=0.58) across versions:

Chapter kjv msg
1  5.8%  4.1%
2  11.4% 5.0%
3  8.0%  5.3%
4  5.0%  3.5%
5  4.3%  4.1%
6  7.1%  4.0
7  7.9%  3.1%
8  4.2%  3.4%

For another specific examples, consider the first chapter of Genesis, where the kjv has 13.6% THE (108 out of 797), and msg has 5.1% THE (29 out of 568). How it all starts:

kjv 1:1 In the beginning God created  the heaven and the earth.
msg 1:1
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth – all you see, all you don't see.

kjv 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
msg 1:2
Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

Construction-wise comparison of whole bible versions looks like a plausible way to test hypotheses about what might be going on.




  1. Phillip Minden said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    There seems to be a relevant difference in approach, though, namely a change from metaphor to explicit general language, which might account for a good deal of lost determination.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    If you were looking for a representative/median recent English version of the Bible, msg would not be a plausible candidate. I can certainly see a plausible non-cherry-picking argument for using it — namely, that it is precisely the fringe/outlier nature of its methodological/stylistic approach (i.e. a very loose/free paraphrase into a fairly informal register of modern AmEng) that will maximize contrast with the KJV's approach — but would feel better with some comparisons against other modern versions also purporting to take an "idiomatic" or "dynamic-equivalence" approach (some in a self-consciously informal register; others not) to see if they show the same trend and if so to what degree. Comparing versions representing a committee/consensus approach to those which (like msg) were basically one-man productions and thus may reflect the stylistic particularities of a single idiolect might also be illuminating, esp since we presumably don't know how Peterson's rate of determiner use in general compares to the median AmEng speaker of his generation;if he is an outlier rather than median specimen when it comes to that there is no reason to think he would have changed that idiosyncrasy when it came to his Bible version. (Although Peterson has published a bunch of other books, so in principle it ought to be possible to evaluate them against other books in similar genres written around the same time by other AmEng speakers of his approx year of birth to see how they compare in rate-of-the-usage.)

  3. Linda said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    @ J.W. Brewer

    I agree. The KJV was produced by committee knowing it was intended to be used during church services as well as private reading. So I believe the need to work when read aloud was taken into consideration. As far as I know the Jerusalem Bible, which is used for the readings in the Catholic church in the UK, was produced with the same intent and also by committee. And so might be a better comparison.

  4. KeithB said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    Isn't a translation a poor choice for this exercise since it reflects the translator's choice in rendering determiners from the source language?

  5. Brett said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    @KeithB: That seems like an argument that the Message Bible might be a good choice for comparison, since it appears to make little to no effort to maintain anything of the untranslated language—opting instead for very broad paraphrases. Translations of the Bible are an unusual case anyway, since the translator(s) are rarely working directly from the Hebrew/Aramaic originals, but are also getting input from earlier Greek, Latin, and English translations.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    I'm not saying msg is a *bad* comparator — I'm just saying there are reasons to suppose that using different modern versions as comparators might yield materially different results and that should be kept in mind when using such comparisons as a way of trying to understand the broad lower-use-of-the trend that seems to be out there. Re KeithB's point, looser approaches such as those of msg (so loose as to be called paraphrases rather than proper translations by their critics) tend not to worry overmuch about the presence or absence of particular lexical items or syntactic constructions in the original.

    [(myl) I'm sure that using different versions — old or new — would yield different results. The point is just that systematic comparisons of individual phrases in such pairs (or n-tuples) offers a way to get a useful inventory of alternative constructions differing in determiner usage.]

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    Referring to KeithB's point about rendering determiners from the source language: this is something that can be tested. Surely there are Greek and/or Hebrew works that were translated into English both from a Latin version (probably earlier) and from the original. Since Greek and Hebrew use determiners copiously while Latin has none, a comparison of the translations could be made.

  8. BZ said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    I would image the Song of Solomon to be notoriously hard to translate because it's poetry (and some say allegory) in a largely dead language (Biblical Hebrew, not Hebrew in general), so I wouldn't use that for comparing definite articles or any other linguistic feature. This is even evident from your quotes. The second translation differs greatly in meaning, not just in language.

    As for Genesis, "First this?" I can't find any sources about what the author's religion is (except that it must be some sort of Christianity), but I know of no religious or secular studies that support this translation.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    kjv 2:17: Until the day break , and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

    msg 2:17: Until dawn breathes its light and night slips away. Turn to me, dear lover. Come like a gazelle. Leap like a wild stag on delectable mountains!

    This example really struck me as losing "the" in two different ways. The first is substituting "dawn" for "the day" and "night" for "the shadows", which according to my personal intuition probably accords pretty well with what's going on in the decline of "the" over time (or part of it, anyway). It feels like the kjv language is older and the msg language is newer.

    But the second way is substituting "delectable mountains" for "the mountains of Bether", which is a pretty significant semantic change! Giving the msg translation as much benefit of the doubt as I can, this seems like rendering "you too could have a house like Bill Gates'" ('s_house ) as "you too could live in an opulent mansion", which benefits people who can't appreciate cultural references but is also forced to replace a very definite reference with a vague, indefinite one. But I doubt that references to current cultural phenomena are declining so steeply over time — this substitution occurred because the original message is several thousand years old, and located many thousands of miles away, and the idea it refers to is no longer familiar to the audience.

  10. Scott said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

    I would be curious to see how a more literal modern translation compares. The Message is infamous (among Christians) for not really being a translation at all–not only does it gratuitously rephrase everything in informal contemporary language, the author took it upon himself to rewrite some of the more difficult or controversial bits to make them easier for modern audiences to digest.

    From the previous posts on this topic, I expect the informality results in a lower determiner count. I'm not sure what effect the level of literalness would have. I don't know anything about Hebrew, but the Greek of the New Testament (and Ancient Greek in general) uses the definite article a lot more than English; for example, our "God" is Greek "ὁ Θεός", literally "the God." This is perfectly reasonable, especially because they have no letter case to distinguish "god" from "God". As in this case, a lot of the extra articles go untranslated, but I still wouldn't be surprised if the English of more literal Bible translations had an overall higher the-count overall.

  11. Guy said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    The difference between "the day" and "dawn" reminds me of one of the differences in article use between English and Spanish (which are generally quite similar article-wise): Spanish tends to use articles for abstract nouns that would be determiner-less in English.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    @ Guy

    Yes I spent the last few months in Mexico and was very surprised by how similar to Rnglish the Spanish use of articles is. I was expecting it to be more like French, and started off using them that way.

    In fact generally I was surprised by the extent to which English and Spanish sentences could be more or less directly translated into each other. The progressive tenses add to this.

  13. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    There seems to be some disagreement whether the original animal called a "turtle" in the King James bible was a dove or some "creeping thing" in the original , though those favoring the latter seems to be a minority.

    Still, can't help wondering, what does the turtle say?

  14. Rubrick said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

    You're missing the important finding here! What we're really seeing is an increase in exclamation points! And singing!

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    And arpeggios! Well, I suppose they had harps.

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    But the second way is substituting "delectable mountains" for "the mountains of Bether", which is a pretty significant semantic change!

    Most translations seem to drop 'Bether'; although no one can agree on what the word means, it looks as if it is agreed that it is a word, not a name.

  17. Chris C. said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    Neil — Still, can't help wondering, what does the turtle say?

    I'm guessing it's something other than "Ring-ding-ding-ding-ding-a-ring-a-ding"

  18. ohwilleke said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

    The Song of Solomon which verse is being translated by different methodologies is not a very fair place to make a comparison of determiners. Comparisons of books written in prose would be much more meaningful.

  19. Armande Cohen said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    Armande Cohen said,
    January 7, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    Picayune perhaps but nonetheless a typical example of how mistranslations arise from what amount to old English to modern.

    The famous "voice of the turtle" heard in the land, was meant to be the song of the turtledove not the reptile.

    Long did I puzzle over the poetic meaning of the silent turtle's voice heralding Spring!

    (A similar misunderstanding arose from the rays of light described Biblically as projecting from Moses' head after he had beheld the Deity. In fact, this stems from the Hebrew word for such rays, "Karnayim" ( קרניים) which also refer in modern Hebrew to the horns of a dairy animal. (קרן in fact, has many more meanings today)

    This didn't prevent Michelangelo from painting Moses with horns!

  20. Adrian Bailey said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:02 pm

    ObAUE: "The Song of Solomon, whose verse" surely.

  21. christoll said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:17 pm

    Given the various objections raised in the comments to using bible translations for this purpose, it might be useful to take samples from other sources as well, like translations of Don Quixote (first translated in 1612) and translations of the speeches of Cicero.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    Neil Dolinger: As far as I can tell without seeing the Haaretz article and with a very limited knowledge of Hebrew, the person in that Stack Exchange dicussion was saying that the modern Hebrew word for turtle or tortoise, tsav, may have meant some other kind of creeping thing. However, that's not the animal whose voice is heard in our land, which is tor, the onomatopoeic word for the turtledove.

  23. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 11:31 pm

    Obviously the turtle had to be wrong, because it's turtles all the way down.

  24. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

    "Turtle" is 17th c English for turtle dove. See, e.g., The Phoenix and the Turtle, by one Wm. Shakespeare (1601), which refers alternatively to "the turtle" and "the dove." There is no ambiguity in the KJV. All there is is a modern misreading of the KJV.

  25. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

    PS – the two turtles have different etymologies. The bird turtle is onomatopoeic and perhaps frequentative ("tur, tur, tur"). The reptile turtle is from French tortu, from Tartarus, based on a belief that turtles originate in the underworld.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

    En français:

    – turtle, tortoise : la tortue
    – turtle(dove) : la tourterelle (probably from *tourtour-elle)

    "Tortue" from "Tartarus" looks like folk etymology.

  27. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

    As for determiners, the KJV takes pains to translate every word in the Hebrew, even where this makes the English wordier than the original – often using two or more words to capture what is one word in Hebrew. This sometimes means inserting an article where the Hebrew has none due to its use of prefixes and suffixes to indicate possession and other relationships. The KJV – which IMHO is (putting theological disputes to one side) the most beautiful English translation – is more ornate and dignified than the original, which is often quite vigorous and raw in comparison. This is less true in the SoS than elsewhere, perhaps because the poetry is so very direct that even the KJV translators couldn't fail to be stirred. But it still is true to some extent.

    Here's the first sentence of SoS in the KJV version:
    Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

    And the original, which has no definite article before kisses:
    .יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, כִּי-טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן
    Yishakeni minshikot pihu ki-tovim dodeikha miyayin:
    My literal translation:
    May he kiss me with his mouth's kisses, for better your love than wine.

    The quoted verses in the OP in the KJV:
    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;
    .הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ, עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ; וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר, נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ
    The buds are seen on the earth, the singing time arrives; and is heard the turtle voice in our land.

    ["On the" is one syllable, and there is only one "the" in the turtle voice and the singing time.]

    KJV: Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether."
    עַד שֶׁיָּפוּחַ הַיּוֹם, וְנָסוּ הַצְּלָלִים: סֹב דְּמֵה-לְךָ דוֹדִי לִצְבִי, אוֹ לְעֹפֶר הָאַיָּלִים–עַל-הָרֵי בָתֶר.
    Mine: Until wafts the day, and flee the shadows, turn, liken-you my love to [a] deer or to [a] gazelle's fawn on Betar Mountains [cleft mountains?]

    So the KJV has more definite articles the the original.

  28. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    "I would image the Song of Solomon to be notoriously hard to translate because it's poetry"

    In terms of meaning the SoS is easy to translate, because the language is concrete and direct, with a great deal of repetition, e.g. in ch. 3, where the verses reflect the maiden's intense obsession: KJV:

    By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

    I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

    The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?

    It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

    What you don't get in this translation is the hammering of the syllables that repeat like the pounding of a heart. This is loving but almost decorous; the original is insane with passion.

  29. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

    This is closer to the craziness of the original:

    In bed all night I sought my soul’s love; I sought and did not find him.
    I rose and walked the city streets to seek my soul’s love, I sought and did not find him.
    The wards who walk the city found me. 'Tell me, did you see my soul’s love?'
    I left them and I found my soul’s love. I held him hard and brought him to my mother's house, into the room where she conceived me.

  30. Graeme said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 7:22 am

    And notice how the modern version does away with starting sentences with 'And'.
    Strunk and White creepeth on.

  31. Bloix said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 9:05 am

    "And" at the beginning of senetences in the KJV is usually a mistranslation. "And" in Hebrew is a prefix v' (written with the letter vav) not a word. In Biblical Hebrew, v' has a second and curious function – it flips the a verb from past to future and vice versa. Vav used this way is called the vav hahipuch (the reversal vav) or the vav consecutive. see

    Because in Biblical Hebrew, the common word order is verb-noun or verb with the pronoun indicated by a suffix, it's very common for a sentence to begin with a verb. When that verb has a vav consecutive affixed to it, it looks like the sentence starts with "and." But the v' in that position has no conjunctive meaning – it's merely an indicator of "tense" (which I put in quotes because there's a dispute over whether Biblical Hebrew has tenses, or whether it has aspects – a dispute I don't claim to understand.)

    A modern Hebrew speaker feels the v' sounds as a archaic but not as a conjunction.

    Anyway, the sonorous repetition of and, and, and that is so much a part of our understanding of Biblical language really doesn't exist in Hebrew. It's a part of our heritage from renaissance England, not from ancient Israel. It's perfectly reasonable for a modern translation to leave it out.

  32. Stop (the) singing said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    While many pick on the poor turtle, nobody seems to pay much attention to the unwarranted (human) singing. The beauty of this verse, in my opinion, stems also from the multi-relevant perfect ambiguity of the word zamir. While translated as singing, it could also mean 'pruning', as in the Hebrew word mazmera, which makes sense in the context of the buds and the figs and the grapes in nearby verses. And it could also mean a kind of a bird (albeit one that "sings" beautifully, but still a bird). Without much additional knowledge, I'd vote for the latter, mainly because of the much-used biblical style of repetition with variation :

    [1a the buds were seen on the earth] [1b the time of the nightingale/dove arrived]
    [2a and the voice of the tor-tle ] [2b was heard over our land]

    הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ, עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ; וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר, נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ

    1a – 2b: earth/land theme
    1b – 2a: birds (tor, zamir), each in a construct state

    And yet, all three meanings of the root zmr are at play here.

    Now, to make this comment slightly more relevant to the original post (*blush*), let me add that in this SoS phrase, all nouns are definite. Four by a preceding determiner, two by virtue of being in a definite construct state (N1 the N2 ==> THE N1 of THE N2), and the last one by being in a genitive mess (in-our-land).

  33. Bloix said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 11:05 pm

    yes, zamir could be singing, or it could be birdsong, or it could be singing bird (eg nightingale). I kind of like nightingale, because a little googling tells me that it's a migratory bird that does breed in Palestine (as well as Europe) after wintering in west Africa, so "arrive" makes sense for it. (Turtle doves also migrate from Africa to Palestine.)

  34. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    Given Spanish tortuga, French tortue really can't be from the Tartarus.

  35. Bloix said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    Wiktionary gives two possible etymologies:

    Possibly from Late Latin tartarūcha, from Late Latin tartarūchus ‎(“of Tartarus”), from Ancient Greek ταρταροῦχος ‎(tartaroûkhos, “from Tartaros, Tartarus, the land of the dead in ancient stories”), because it used to be thought that tortoises and turtles came from the underworld; or from Latin tortus ‎(“twisted”).

    The OED says that tortue and tortuga are from Latin tortuca, "of uncertain origin."

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