I’m reading Alice in Wonderland, and found the following dialogue:

“The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise—”

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him a Tortoise because he taught us.”

What is the relationship between “he taught us” and “Tortoise”? Is this some kind of pun or joke?

  • @mqlarson: There is some discussion of this very quote in the question Theta30 referred to. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 5:04
  • @FumbleFingers you should think not about native speaking children only and also about not native speakers. So as I see at dictionary.com pronounces of tortoise and thought us are different. – hazzik Sep 6 '11 at 2:56
  • 12
    @FumbleFingers: if only everyone here comes from Britain and knows how the bloody British want their Tortoise to sounds like, which I say, isn't obvious to me as a non-BE non-native speaker. From the various ways I had imagined "Tortoise" could be pronounced, none of it sounds at all resembling "taught us", so the "joke" was opaque to me. – Lie Ryan Sep 6 '11 at 3:02
  • Why the rollback, @hazzik? – MetaEd Aug 3 '12 at 12:50

The passage is funny because the Mock Turtle acts as an authority figure but uses abnormal logic and reason. This pretense of authority and twisting of logic are ongoing motifs of Alice in Wonderland.

By saying, "we called him Tortoise [ˈtʰɔː təs] because he taught us [ˈtʰɔt əs]", the Mock Turtle claims that this similarity of pronunciation is a valid reason to call a turtle "Tortoise". He implies that his own pronunciation-based logic is more valid than the actual ways to distinguish turtles and tortoises.

Note: In other dialects of English, such as American English, the pronunciation of "tortoise" [ˈtʰɔɹ ɾəs] is quite different from "taught us" [ˈtʰɒ ɾʌs]

| improve this answer | |
  • In British English, I'm therefore assuming, "Tortoise" is pronounced with a strong "tort" and then a tiny "schwa" sound, is that right? – Thursagen Sep 5 '11 at 20:22
  • It can be pronounced either tort-toise or tout-tus. – alan2here Jan 8 '12 at 1:01

This is a pun that needs to be understood in its context. Although he was a Turtle, his pupils called him a Tortoise, because:

'We called him a Tortoise because he taught us!' said the Mock Turtle angrily: 'really you are....'

It's a pun by Caroll.

It seems that Americans don't get this pun, because the American pronunciation of "tortoise" differs from the English pronunciation. Because Carroll was an Englishman and was writing to a British audience, it would have made sense to them.

In British English, "tortoise" is pronounced nearly exactly the same as "taught us", and that's why the students called the Turtle a "tortoise", even if he wasn't.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    +1 for adding context from the same book--the next line--which explains this entire thing. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 5:12
  • 5
    @hazzik: It is a pun. They sound similar when spoken out loud. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 5:17
  • 9
    @simchoma: they don't sound similar; in British English, they sound exactly the same. In American English, they sound quite different. (But +1 for pointing out the pun.) – Peter Shor Sep 5 '11 at 11:01
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: they really don't sound the same to an American ear. At least not to mine, and I don't have the cot-caught merger, which would make them even farther apart. For example, if they are spoken with a rhotic accent, I don't perceive "Lord" and "fraud" (from the Jesus Christ Superstar lyrics) as anywhere close to rhyming, even though I can hear they do in British English. I think it has something to do with the way r-influenced vowels work in American English. – Peter Shor Sep 6 '11 at 12:47
  • 2
    @Fumble: trivial in BrE. Totally incomprehensible in AmE. t-t-s just doesn't make the connection. THe vowels, the r's or lack thereof), and the stress make them very different. Even being told the explanation, an AmE reader would still have difficulty thinking that anybody would ever have tried to stretch a pun so far. – Mitch Sep 6 '11 at 19:49

Tortoises are a species of turtle. A tortoise is a turtle. But a turtle is not explicitly a tortoise. In that respect they are the same.

However, tortoises are land animals while turtles are amphibious. That's the major difference.

Edit: The context above isn't making reference to the tortoise animal. They called him tortoise (pronounced "taught us") because he taught them, not because he was a tortoise. It's clearly a figure of speech - a funny one too because a tortoise is a type of turtle.

| improve this answer | |
  • He was a sea ​​turtle, why they call him Tortoise? – hazzik Sep 5 '11 at 4:56
  • @hazzik: Carroll doesn't make sense all of the time, and it could merely have been a literary figure of speech. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 4:58
  • 2
    @hazzik: You asked for meaning in context, which the next sentence will give you. I'm not sure what more you desire at this point. – simchona Sep 5 '11 at 5:22
  • 6
    Children, children, stop your bickering. Figures of speech aren't easy to understand (I didn't get this one until I'd read it a couple of times). Hopefully we can all get along and learn more about the greatest language in the world — British English! – Coomie Sep 5 '11 at 5:58
  • 1
    Whether you view turtles as marine tortoises or tortoises as terrestrial turtles doesn’t alter the fact that all chelonians are reptiles not amphibians: none of them ever breathe water, and thus are not amphibians. – tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 16:24

In the non-rhotic parts of southern England (where the Received Pronunciation that Carroll would have spoken comes from) the word tortoise (the usual word there for the land-dwelling reptile, turtle being reserved for sea- or freshwater-dwelling species) rhymes exactly with taught us. In the north of England the word is usually pronounced with the second syllable rhyming with voice. Carroll was writing, in the first instance, for an audience restricted by both geography and social class.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    What does ‘social class’ mean in American? The Joisey accent of rhyming tortoise and taught us is widely (although inaccurately) perceived a relic of the uneducated lower classes, and thus antithetical to being taught. – tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 16:25
  • 1
    @tchrist: do you mean to claim that in some kind of New Jersey accent, those two words are pronounced identically? – Mitch Aug 2 '12 at 17:39
  • 1
    @Mitch I suppose I may be mistaking NJ accents with NY ones, but certainly there are non-rhotic speakers in that area who would rhyme those. – tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 23:07

What is the relationship between "he taught us" and "Tortoise"?

It has to do with the pronunciation of the au and or sounds. The literally English pronunciation (the pronunciation in the English used in England) of the letter r, is not normally rhotic. If you learn of the non-rhotic pronunciation of the sound or and compare it with the English pronunciation of the au sound, you will understand. This makes the sounds of these two sounds, the same.

Therefore, the word taught and the "tort" part of the word tortoise, are pronounced the same. A lot of English (and other British) pronunciation is not rhotic.


There is another point worth making, in relation to this. Even though the word taught and the "tort" part of the word tortoise rhyme, the words "taught us" and "tortoise" do not always rhyme in British English pronunciation.

There are people who pronounce them exactly the same. There are also people who pronounce tortoise as "tor-tos"; with a non-rhotic r and the os sound involving another, common pronunciation of the letter o; as it is in the British pronunciation of the words dog and copper. This, particular pronunciation of the letter o is in the English of England but, not in the English of North America (American English and Canadian English).

| improve this answer | |

Since you asked what it means in this context: Turtle is a kind of animal. Or possibly, given the capitalisation, a member of some group known as the Turtles. Tortoise is the master's personal name or nickname.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.