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Summary Details

Query:   Summary: Breast/Milk Lexicon
Author:  Krisadawan Hongladarom
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   General Linguistics


Krisadawan Hongladarom

Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok


(This file can also be reached at
Comments, suggestions, and more information are welcome.)

With reference to my posting in the Linguist List on February
4, 1998 titled "The Words for Breast/Milk", here is a summary of my
findings with the following sections. For a quick glance at the
contributions from the Linguist List, please go to Sections 2, 4, 6,
and 8 directly.

1. Original query
2. Acknowledgement
3. Background of the study dealing with breast/milk
4. Breast/milk: Tibetan
5. Breast/milk: Rgyalthang Tibetan
6. Breast/milk: Data from various languages
7. Breast/milk: Additional data from SEA languages
8. Discussion and conclusion.
9. Note: Special phonetic symbols used in this file
10. References

Some of you asked why I wanted to know what the words breast
and milk are in different languages. I must apologize for not having
given you the background of the study when I posted my query.


The word for breast and milk in many Southeast Asian languages
are often related etymologically. For example, in Thai nom(32) is
breast, and nam(45)nom(32)'water breast' is milk. The same situation
is for Written Tibetan, though I'm not very sure if the word for
breast is correct. Homa is milk, and Ho-Hdod 'milk desire(?)'is
breast. (H is a voiced glottal fricative). In Rgyalthang, a variety
of Khams Tibetan spoken in Yunnan (PRC), the word for milk is
nei(231), which obviously came from nei(231)po(51) 'breast'. However,
Rgyalthang also distinguishes between nei(231) 'breast milk' and
wui(231) 'cow's milk'.

I'm wondering if the languages you speak or are familiar with
have the same etymon for the words breast and milk and if the word for
breast milk is the same as cow's milk.


I did not expect to get so many feedbacks. Thank you so much
to the following people who provided me with the interesting and
insightful data from various languages of a wide range of families
(e.g., Romance, Niger-Kordafanian, Austronesian, Algonquian, Siouan,
Mura, Finno-Ugric, among others), including from the American Sign
Language. I have attempted to summarize the findings as best as I
could. If there are errors in terms of data presentation or
misunderstandings, I would like to apologize to you here.

Mayrene E. Bentley (Swahili)

Rick Mc Callister (Spanish)

Rosa Lidia Coimbra (Portuguese)

Bernard Comrie (Haruai and languages of the New Guinea Area)
<> until mid-May

Karen Courtenay (Bambara, Niger-Kordofanian, spoken in West Africa,
centering on Mali)

Scott DeLancey (Klamath, spoken in the U.S. state of Oregon)

Daniel L. Everett (Piraha, spoken in the Amazon--there are only
210 speakers of Piraha. All other Mura languages are

MJ Hardman (Jaqaru, Kawki and Aymara--Jaqi languages of South America)

Ben Karlin (American Sign Language)

John Koontz (Dakotan and Omaha-Ponca, Siouan)

Auri Kuosa (Finnish)

Wayne Leman (Cheyenne, Algonquian, spoken in the U.S. states of
Montana and Oklahoma)

David Ludden (Japanese)

Stuart Luppescu (Japanese)

Waruno Mahdi (Indonesian and Malay)

Lisa Matthewson (St'at'imcets, Lillooet Salish, spoken in
British Columbia,Canada)

Knut J. Olawsky (Dagbani, Niger-Congo, Gur, Western-Oti-Volta,
spoken by 500,000 people in Northern Ghana)

John Phillips (Japanese)

Charles O. Schleicher (Tupi-Guarani)

Ralf Vollmann (Tibetan)


I am writing a paper entitled "Rgyalthang Tibetan Lexicon and
an Appraisal of a Southeast Asian Wordlist". The wordlist discussed in
the paper is CALMSEA (Culturally Appropriate Lexicostatistical Model
for SouthEast Asia) or "The Matisoff 200-word List", as presented in
Matisoff (1978). Specifically speaking, I would like to find out to
what extent core vocabulary items in Tibetan are similar to those in
other languages spoken in Southeast Asia (SEA). In other words, do
what Matisoff claims to be basic words in this region hold true for
Tibetan, a most geographically distant relative of mainland SEA?
Vagina or breast/milk (#30) is one of the items in the
wordlist. Matisoff seems to suggest that a certain linguistic form in
language A means vagina but in language B means breast, given that A
and B are related genetically (both are Southeast Asian languages,
more likely from the Sino-Tibetan family). That is, the cognates in
both languages may mean either vagina or breast. And when it means
breast, it often shares the same etymon as milk. Breast and milk are
thus "allofams", to use Matisoff's term. This sparked my interest in
investigating the Tibetan correspondences for
these three words and particularly the etymological relationship between
breast and milk. In this file, only the finding concerning breast/milk is


In Tibetan (in the varieties I know, i.e. Lhasa (Central
Tibetan) and Rgyalthang (Khams [southeastern] Tibetan), as well as
Classical Tibetan) the word vagina is never identical with the word
breast. Matisoff gave the Proto-Sino-Tibetan form *nuw for the item
#30. This form is obviously related to the Classical Tibetan numa
'breast, generally female breast; mammary gland; nipple, teat, also of
males' (JAschke 1881; RYTP-KKBN 1996--for this reference, thanks to
Ralf Vollmann).
The basic word for milk in Modern Tibetan is Homa, which has
nothing to do with numa (-ma is a nominalizer), though Das (1902)
provided a seemingly related term: Ho-Hdod 'the woman's breast, the
teats (literally milk-desire)'. JAschke also gives another word for
milk: zho 'curds; milk
in general', as in mai nu zho 'mother's breast milk', ma zho
'mother's milk
(colloquial term)', and zho Hthung dus na
'at the time of suckling (Hthung means to drink)'.
However, in Modern Tibetan (particularly Lhasa dialect), zho
means simply curd (Goldstein 1983). From these sources, we may
conclude that in Classical Tibetan zho is the general word for milk,
which connotes breast milk and is the form used in the noun
incorporation construct meaning 'to suckle'. However, zho has nothing
to do with the word breast. Another word for milk, Homa, may have been
used to refer to other kinds of milk, such as cow's milk, though both
zho and Homa appear in expressions 'to milk (a cow)'. Or it is
possible that both words are just synonyms for milk in general.
Here are more details about breast and milk in RYTP-KKBN (data
from Ralf Vollmann):

dkar 'dzin // the female breasts.
mthong ga // chest, breast
nu ma // breast, mammary glad, female breast, bosom,
nipple, teat;
nu ma nu nu mdzad // sucking
nu ma bsnun pa // to suck the breast
nu longs // suck
brang // a dwelling/ the chest; chest, breast;
breast/ chest
brang kha // chest
mu ma // breast
'jo // p. {bshos} 1) va. to milk. 2) to satisfy
[someone needs], yield [to someone's desire.]
ldud // give to drink
ldud pa //'o ma ldud pa - feeding milk
ldud pa // to give to drink, to water, to pour,
to sprinkle, to cast, to found; {ldud pa,
ldud pa, ldud pa, ldud} trans. v.
ba 'jo ba // to milk a cow
zhon // imp. of {zhon pa}; to ride, to milk
bzho ba // ft. of {'jo ba}; to milk
bzho ba // to milk
bzhon ma // milking cow
bzhos // milked
'o // sentence ending particle; kiss; milk; well,
lis-ten here!
'o dkar // white milk color [with a slight bluish
'o kha // milky white [with a slight tinge of green]
'o ma // milk
'o ma can gyi rgya mtsho // Milky Lake
'o ma can gyi rgya mtsho // Milky Lake; in the
south-western direction
of Uddiyana
'o ma 'jo ba // to milk [a cow]
'o ma ldud pa // feeding milk
'o ma bzho ba // to milk [a cow]
'o ma zi zi // pater-noster pea
ru ma // curdled milk
gsas mo // mother's milk


Rgyalthang is a Tibetan dialect spoken in Zhongdian, Diqin
Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan, PRC. There are more than
100,000 speakers of Rgyalthang. The Rgyalthang milk is nei(231), which
obviously came from nei(231)po(51)'breast'. However, Rgyalthang also
distinguishes between nei(231) 'breast milk' and waN(51)'cow's
milk'. Classical Tibetan does not make a distinction between cow's
milk and milk from a human, and it has two seemingly unrelated words
for breast (numa) and milk (zho/Homa), as discussed in Section 4

Note: there is an error in my original query regarding the
Rgyalthang Tibetan word cow's milk. It should be wang(51), not
wui(231). The latter corresponds to Hod in Written Tibetan meaning
'light'. The former may correspond to the root Ho in Homa 'milk', but
I have yet to work out the phonological correspondence.



Japanese has "titi" which means both '(lady's) breast' and 'milk'.
This seems to be the basic word for both in Japanese, though there are
also more specific words, Chinese borrowings, such as "gyuu-nyuu"
meaning 'cow's milk' and "bo-nyuu", 'milk from a woman'.

John Phillips

In Japanese, the word for breast, `oppai' is often used to mean milk,
but I have a feeling that it is just a matter of metonymy.

Stuart Luppescu

The Japanese use the same word *titi* for "breast" and for
"breastmilk." My dictionary says that *titi* can also be used to refer
to the concept "milk" in general. However, when I was in Japan, nobody
bought *titi* at the supermarket. Instead, they bought *gyuunyuu*
(historic borrowing from Chinese, equivalent to modern Chinese
*niunai*) or *miruku* (that is, English "milk"). However, *titi* is
the only native Japanese word for "milk" that I'm aware of.

David Ludden


In Indonesian (which, as you probably know, is a Malay dialect) the
word _susu_ originally meant "breasts (female)", and the expression
for "milk" was and still is _air susu_ (_air_ "water"). However, the
expression for "milk" is in the present language usually shortened to
_susu_. Although one can still use _susu_ in the meaning of "breasts
(female)", this usage is not common anymore, and unless this meaning
is explicit from the context, one would normally understand _susu_ to
mean "milk". For "breasts" one nowadays more often uses the word
_dada_ "breast, chest (male/female)". When one wishes to accentuate
that the female breasts are meant, one may say _buah dada_, where
_buah_ etymologically means "fruit", but functions as count-word for
round objects (or also objects of any form).

The situation in Indonesia is typical for Malay dialects. but there
are differences in the extent of the shift of _susu_ from "breasts" to
Waruno Mahdi


I am a Portuguese native speaker. In Portuguese, the word for milk is
'leite' (both human and cow milk). To distinguish them, we say 'leite
materno' (milk from the mother) to refer to the human milk and 'leite
de vaca' (milk from the cow) to refer to the cow milk. There is no
etymological relation to the word breast, which is 'peito' or 'mama'.

The action of breast feeding is referred to by the verbal expressions
'dar o peito' (to give the breast) or 'dar de mamar' from the point
of view of the mother, and 'mamar' (to suck) from the point of
view of the baby.

Rosa Lidia Coimbra


In Spanish cow milk & human milk is the same --leche breast is most
commonly *pecho* "chest" but also *mama*, which is probably related to
*mamar* "to suck" and there are also slang words as well but these
have nothing to do with milk either.

Rick Mc Callister


In Swahili the word "ziwa" means "lake" and "maziwa" means "lakes."
What is interesting is that "maziwa" also means "milk." I was told by
an Indian that many languages see water/milk as the source of life and
that's why they are related.

Mayrene E. Bentley


The word for human milk is sinji - literally "breast water" or "breast
liquid" (sin "breast" ji "water"). This is different from the word for
cow's milk,which is nono (open o's).

Karen Courtenay


I have been working on the language DAGBANI (Niger-Congo, Gur,
Western-Oti-Volta, spoken by 500.000 people in Northern Ghana) and I
discovered a very close relation between the words for "breast" and

bih(i)-li (female) breast-SG (where (i) is an
vowel, -li the singular suffix)
bih(i)-m milk (where -m is a suffix usually used
to indicate a mass noun, especially used for

The nominal root is the same (it also bears the same (L) tone,
whereas the suffix is H in both cases).

Knut Olawsky


In Finnish, the words breast and milk are unrelated: rinta for breast,
maito for milk. Cow's milk is referred to by the same maito (or indeed
any other animal's). If it's necessary to make a distinction, the
words rintamaito (breastmilk) and lehm&quot;an maito (cow's milk) are
simply used. Interestingly, the milk-like liquid secreted by some
plants is referred to as maiti, obviously of the same extraction.

Auri Kuosa


/?ec'as/ is 'milk, teat, breast'; the same stem conjugated as a verb
/?ec'a/ means 'suckle'.

Scott DeLancey


The word for milk and for the breast is the same: NYuNYu. The word for
cow milk is borrowed from Spanish, for the most part: lichi<leche. In
one case, on one German hacienda, it was borrowed from German. The
cow itself was an introduction at the time of the conquest.

MJ Hardman


In the Siouan languages 'milk' is typically 'breast water':
Dakotan: aze'mniN 'milk' < aze' 'breast, udder' +
mniN 'water'
(V' accented V; VN nasal V)
Omaha-Ponca: maNze'niN 'milk' < maNze' 'breast, udder' + niN 'water'

In these languages the term 'water' also serves as the general term
for 'fluid' and is used also in the names of major rivers (and their

John E. Kootnz


The word for 'milk' is directly derived from the word for 'breast:'

matana milk
matana breast (rare as singular)
matanane breasts

The word for 'breast' in Cheyenne can be for the breast area on either
a man or woman. Hence, matanae-ve'ho'e means 'policeman', literally,
'chest-whiteman', referring to the official badge worn on the chest of
a policeman.

There is no difference in the word for 'milk', whether it comes from a
human or a cow.

Wayne Leman


In Piraha, the words are indeed related:
?ibogi 'milk'
bogi 'breast/chest'

The glottal + i at the beginning of 'milk' is probably the feminine
pronoun, but I am not positive.

Daniel L. Everett


In St'at'imcets (Lillooet Salish, spoken in British Columbia, Canada),
the word for breast and milk are exactly the same, namely (s)q?am. The
s- at the beginning is diachronally a prefix called a
'nominalizer'. The word for 'to suckle' is q?am, which obligatorily
lacks the s-.

These days, for cow's milk in the context of people drinking it,
people seem to prefer to use the borrowing 'melk' (with e standing for

Lisa Matthewson


Tupi-Guarani languages all have something like kam for 'breast' and
kamI for 'milk', transparently 'breast-water'. (I is the universal
Tupi-Guarani word for 'water'). Proto-Tupi-Guarani has *kam for
'breast', *I for 'water' and */kamI/ for 'milk'.

Charles Schleicher


(I)dentity (not just etymological relatedness) of appellations of
'breast' and 'milk' is widespread among languages of the New Guinea
area, and even carries through to the Tok Pisin word "susu". In the
Papuan language I worked on, Haruai, the word is "kaw"--the
phonological resemblance to English "cow" is entirely fortuitous. In
New Guinea, there are no (indigenous) cows, indeed the largest
indigenous nonhuman animal is a pig, and I've never heard of anyone
trying to milk a pig (or a tree kangaroo, or a possum, to name some of
the other local mammals). When I showed Haruai people a picture of
cows being milked, once they got over their disgust at imagining
humans--adult humans at that!--drinking the milk of other animals,
they agreed that the correct term to use for this drink would be
simply "roo"
("o"><o-umlaut>), i.e. 'water', and definitely not "kaw".

Bernard Comrie


In American Sign Language (the language of culturally Deaf people),
there are different signs used for breast in breast-feeding and sexual
attraction. The sign used for breast-feeding uses a single-hand with
fingertips closed on the thumb (like is used in hand puppets or
mimicking talking) laid on the opposite side of the chest (right hand
on left chest). If describing breasts as a physical feature or object
of sexual attraction the hands are cup-shaped and placed in front of
the speaker as though iconically representing the breasts of another

The sign for breast-feeding uses that first sign BREAST with a slight
up-and-down movement and head downward (lips closed and lightly
pursed) as though an infant were currently being held and nursed on
the iconic teat. If there was a need to refer to the breastmilk
itself aside from in the act of nursing, these signs would need to be
included in an explanation which in some way indicated that breast
milk would be stored and used or removed and used. The sign milk is
used only for cow's milk although it can be compounded with goat,
sheep etc to indicate milk from other animals. Even the phrase
"mother's milk" would not be compounded with this sign; that
combination would indicate the milk belonging to or for mother, not
from her breast.

Ben Karlin



nom(32) 'breast (both of male and female bodies)' tau(52)nom(32)
'breast, udder (classifer for a breast (as of human and
animal-breast)' nam(45)nom(32) 'milk (water-breast)'

What is interesting here is the word tau(52), which is found in the
first element of a compound (udder, breast-day) meaning 'sun' in
several Northern Tai languages (L.Thongkum 1994). Note that in Thai
the compound meaning 'sun' is composed of the words taa(32) 'eye' and
wan(32) 'day'.

L-Thongkum (1994) gave the following examples in Lakkja:


tau(24)wan(231) 'sun'
tau(24)blet(55) 'star'

Interestingly, the word for breast/milk in Lakkja is nE:n(24), not
tau(24). tau(24) occurs only in the above two compounds.

SGAW KAREN (Karenic, Tibeto-Burman)
nu(1) 'breast'
nu(1) 'milk'
(Ratanakul 1986)

This root is a cognate of the Tibetan root nu- in numa 'breast'.


>From the data above, we may come to the following conclusion:

1. The roots for breast (sometimes chest), milk, and often the
related terms --teat and the verbs suck or suckle--are usually related
and indeed for some languages (e.g., Sgaw Karen and languages of the
New Guinea Area) are identical. This situation is not limited to SEA
languages, as I thought it would be, but it is widespread among
languages throughout the world.

2. Specifically speaking, the word milk is often derived from
the word breast. This is obvious in such languages as Piraha,
Cheyenne, Bambara, Dagbani, Dakotan and Omaha-Ponca, Tupi-Guarani, and
Thai. In some of these languages the word milk is a compound composed
of two roots meaning breast and water. Indonesian presents a special
situation in which the old word for breast means simply milk in modern
usage, and the new word for breast (and chest) has nothing to do with

3. Some languages, such as Bambara, Haruai, Rgyalthang
Tibetan, and even the American Sign Language have two unrelated
words/signs to signify breast milk and cow's milk. Japanese provides
an interesting example in which the native word for 'breast/milk' is
not used to signify other kinds of milk. To refer to those, the
Japanese resort to Chinese or English borrowings. Other than
Japanese, Jaqui languages also use a borrowed term when referring to
cow's milk, keeping the native term for breast milk. It is likely that
in a culture where people historically did not drink milk they tend to
borrow the word milk (which is not from the breast) from other
languages in contact. This is also clear in Sta'at'imcets.

4. Etymologically speaking, milk is related to other kinds of
liquids, such as water (Swahili, Haruai), and milk-like liquid from
some plants (Finnish).

5. Interestingly enough, only few languages have unrelated
roots for breast and milk. Such languages (at this stage of research)
are Spanish, Portuguese, and Finnish.


Special phonetic symbols used in this file:
H voiced glottal fricative
N velar nasal
NY palatal nasal
? glottal stop
I high central unrounded
E mid front open


Das, Sarat Chandra. 1902. A Tibetan-English Dictionary: with
Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta: the Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.

Jaschke, H.A. 1881. A Tibetan-English Dictionary: with Special
Reference to the Prevailing Dialects. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Goldstein, Melvin. 1983. Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern
Tibetan. Kathmandu:Ratna Pustak Bhandar.

L-Thongkum, Theraphan. 1994. The lexicalization and
conceptualization of some noun compounds in Tai-Kadai languages. Acta
Linguistica Hafniensia 27: 353-358.

Matisoff, James. 1978. Variational Semantics in Tibeto-Burman: the
"Organic" Approach to Linguistic Comparison. Philadelphia, PENN:
Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Rangjung Yeshe Translations and Publications in cooperation with the
Karma Kagyu Buddhist Network (RYTP-KKBN). 1996. Tibetan-English
Dictionary of Buddhist Teaching and Practice.

Ratanakul, Suriya. 1986. Thai-Sgaw Karen Dictionary. Nakhorn
Prathom: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development,
Mahidol University.

Dr. Krisadawan Hongladarom
Department of Linguistics
Faculty of Arts
Chulalongkorn University
Bangkok 10330
Tel. 662-2184690; Fax. 662-218-4697

LL Issue: 9.198
Date Posted: 09-Feb-1998
Original Query: Read original query


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