1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: French
  4. >
  5. Turtle, tortoise, tortue, tor…


Turtle, tortoise, tortue, tortuga?

This is something that has bothered me for a while, in English (certainly British English) turtles are things with flippers that live in the sea and only come onto land to lay eggs, and tortoises have feet and legs and live on land.

In French and Spanish there seems to be no distinction, just the same word for the different creatures. Is that right?

April 15, 2018



The dictionary is a great place to resolve questions of meaning. One of my favorites is WordReference, but I also like SpanishDict for Spanish.

French for "turtle" : tortue, tortue marine

French for "tortoise": tortue, tortue terrestre

Spanish for "turtle": tortuga, tortuga aquática, tortuga de agua

Spanish for "tortoise": tortuga, galápago

Another great way to resolve doubts is to do a Google Image Search.
GIS for tortue yields mostly tortoises but some turtles.
GIS for tortuga yields a good mix.


I've noticed that as well. I have visited cozumel a couple of times per year, every year, for at least 20 years now, to dive and I have found that they use the word "tortugas" to describe the ones in the sea as well as those on land. I have pored through unabridged dictionaries to find a word to distinguish them--I even made it a point to consult one particularly fat tome in La Biblioteca Nacional de México back in 2001 to research this question--but it seems that there is no common difference.

By the way, it's "fins." Not "flippers". Otherwise I agree with you. Turtles live in the sea. Tortoises live on land. Yet, Spaniards (French) do not seem to have any interest in a single noun to discriminate between the two. Interestingly, the spanish (french) word for fins is aletas (ailettes), which in English is quite literally "little wings."

FWIW, the question has been visited on this forum as well (long before I came here): https://www.duolingo.com/comment/41639/Is-turtle-the-same-as-tortoise-in-Spanish

We'll be headed to Guadeloupe this summer (for some diving in the Cousteau marine park!) and I'll try to find out whether the Kréyol/francophone locals have a different word for tortoises (vis-à-vis sea turtles).

In Cozumel, most of the guides are Maya, and their first language is usually Yucatec, not spanish. In their Maya language they do have two different words for the two types of reptiles: "ak" for marine turtle; "kok" for land tortoise. Sometimes when I'm speaking to locals, I use the Yucatec Maya words in order to discriminate. (There's a display in Merida--the one in Yucatán, not Spain--that translates both words into spanish as "tortuga") Why the Spaniards, given their long history of global exploration, never came up with different words for these two types of anapsid reptiles has always been a mystery to me.

Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.