Speaking Dutch: off the beaten track with tortoises, turtles and toads

What does a well-dressed turtle wear?

https://i1.wp.com/download.free-download-web.com/files/2014/08/Tortoise-totem-vector-material.jpgAs an expat, sometimes you read something in your second language and it makes you realise that you think differently about the world than your host country. A case in point: the tortoise. Now, in English, the tortoise lives in a shell, but in Dutch, a tortoise is a schildpad. Schild means shield, so that means the wrinkly beings live in shields, not shells. Curious.

But there’s something else that suddenly struck me about the word schildpad, and that is that in Dutch, pad means toad. So a Dutch tortoise is a shield toad. Funnily enough, tortoises have never reminded me in any way of toads, and the thought of a shield toad conjures up images of weapon-toting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles using sewer covers as shields. On a sidenote, it turns out a previously-undescribed species of tiny shield toad was discovered in the leaf litter of the Brazilian rainforest as recently as 1998, but it was definitely a toad, not a tortoise.

Pondering on tortoises, my mind turned to turtles and terrapins. Biologically, they all come from the same family. In English, they have completely different names depending on where they live, but in Dutch they keep the same name with the addition of the relevant habitat. The default is the land schildpad, a turtle is called a zeeschildpad, i.e. a sea tortoise, and a terrapin is a waterschildpad, which  is a freshwater turtle. In practice, schildpad is often used for all three. None of them are toads, though, of that I am sure.

So, what do tortoises and paths have in common in Dutch?

The answer is the word pad, a homonym meaning both path and tortoise, but you do have to pay attention to whether you need the de or het word or you might trip on de pad op het pad. Even the plurals are different:

  • de pad = the toad (pl. padden)
  • het pad = the path or track (pl. paden)
  • de pad = coffee pad, a new addition to the Dutch paddy universe with the English plural pads

Iets in je schild voeren

There is a Dutch expression using the word schild‘iets in je schild voeren’, often used when you are suspicious:  ‘wat voer je in je schild?’ means ‘What are you up to?’ Literally it is related to heraldry and the symbols displayed on a shield, but as there are few knights enquiring about each other’s coat of arms nowadays, you can safely assume that isn’t what is being referred to if you hear the expression. Unless you are taking part in a medieval reenactment event, in which case, assume nothing.

Non-yawning tortoises win Ig Nobel Prize

Incidentally, a Dutch scientist at Nijmegen’s Donders Institute of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour was involved in the stunning discovery that yawning is not contagious for tortoises. The study won one of the tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel Prizes in 2011. It took 6 months to train one tortoise to open its mouth in a yawn when prompted by a red flag. The other tortoises in the study failed to react to her yawns or to film images of yawning tortoises, leading to the conclusion that tortoises aren’t like humans. Or possibly that this adds to our understanding of human brains. Take your pick. Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/may/02/improbable-research-yawning-contagious-tortoise

Off on another tangent, I am reminded of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Strangely enough, there is a difference in Dutch and English use of hares and rabbits, but that’s a story for another day.

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