The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #12 November / December 2014
Words in Your Mouth
by Erik Zidowecki
November / December 2014 | 

Sweet milk! It is the first food among most warm-blooded creatures of the Earth. As babies, it is pure sustenance. As we grow older, it provides the nutrients to keep our bodies and muscles strong. We mix it with our coffee and tea, use it as a basis for our cheeses and yogurts, and even create our deserts with it, like milk chocolate and ice cream. One would have to truly call it the "drink of life."

A young sheep, drinking milk from its mother.

We can get milk from most mammals. The English word "mammal" comes from the Latin word mamma meaning "breast", which is where milk comes from.

The word "milk" in English has its roots in an Indo-European word "melg" which meant "wiping or stroking." This was the method of getting the liquid from an animal’s udders. The verb then got its meaning transferred to the substance it produces. This is how we still use the term... we get our "milk" from "milking" a cow. The "melg" got passed into the Germanic languages as "melk," which became the base "meluks." This led to most of the modern Germanic words: Dutch (melk), German (Milch), Yiddish (milkh), and Faroese (mjólk).

The root "melg" seems to have also been picked up in the Old Teutonic, which is often the root for the Slavic words. However, while it also transferred the "g" to a "k" sound, somewhere the "e" and "l" seems to have gotten transposed as well, as can be seen among the Slavic words: Polish (mleko), Russian (молоко), Croatian (mlijeko), and Kashubian (mlékò).

Among the Italic languages, a common root is normally found in Latin, and this is no exception. The ancient Latin root was "lac," which actually did refer to the substance. It gave us the Latin verb lactare, meaning "to suckle." From there, the modern derivatives can be seen clearly: Italian (latte), Spanish (leche), Catalan (llet), and Romanian (lapte). Notice that in most cases, the "c" was dropped. In a few, it was replaced by another letter. It is also interesting to note that while the shift in the Germanic and Slavic came from a verb into a noun, the Italic came from a noun into a verb.

People observing the cows of a dairy farm, Varmakeldugarðurin ("The Hot Springs Farm"), on the island island of Eysturoy, Faroe Islands.

The word for "milk" in Old Irish was "lacht," taken from the Latin "lac" as well. "Lacht" is used now to refer more strictly to cow's milk. Old Irish "bannae" had the primary meaning of "drop," but then the meaning transferred to "drop of milk," then simply to "milk." From that, we get these Gaelic words: Irish (bainne), Manx (bainney), and Scottish Gaelic (bainne).

The Malay word "susu" originally meant "breast," and the expression "air susu" meant "breast water," or "milk." This later got shortened to simply "susu," with the meaning being transferred.

What is particularly interesting to note is that in some languages, the words for "milk" and "breasts" are related or identical, while in other languages, they seem to be totally unrelated. Some reasons for this could be meaning transfers, word "borrowing" from other languages, or simply drawing the words from two entirely different bases.

In English, "milk" can be used as both a noun and verb, with "to milk" being the process of getting the milk. This word similarity between noun and verb forms is ound in some languages and not in others. The words for "milk / to milk" are latte / mungere in Italian, leche / ordeñar in Spanish, Milch / milchen in German, melk / melke in Norwegian, and малако / малочны in Belarusian.

Related Derivatives

Shelves full of containers of milk in a supermarket.

The process of milk coming from a breast, "lactation," obviously has its root from the Latin "lac," which also shows again how English draws from so many sources; it draws "milk" from a Germanic origin, but "giving milk" from a Latin origin. A less obvious derivative is the salad standard "lettuce." It also comes from the Latin, and was given this connection because when one cuts into fresh lettuce, a white, watery, "milky" substance flows out. However, this connection is not drawn in most of the other languages.


Since milk is so close to our basic existence, a number of the slang terms refer to its purity. "Mother's Milk" is used to describe something that is wholesome. "Milk and Honey" is used to describe the richness of a land. When we make a big deal over something simple, we are told, "Don't cry over spilt milk." When we take advantage of a situation, usually one in which we shouldn't, we are said to be "milking it."


I was surprised at how direct the connections were between the modern words for "milk" and their origins. It only reinforces how important this liquid is to our lives and health, how much we cherish it. And I was also surprised I managed to write this article without making too many embarrassing references to breasts. I could have really milked those!

Other pictures related to milk
From top-left, clockwise: Cup of coffee, with milk added; Kitten drinking milk from a bowl; A drop of milk splashing; Slices of cheese, made from milk; Ice-cream, made by freezing milk; Bars of milk chocolate.

"Milk" in many languages
Afrikaans: melk
Dutch: melk
English: milk
Frisian: molke
German: Milch
Limburgian: milk
Luxembourgish: Mëllech
Scots: melk
Swiss German: Milch
Yiddish: milkh
Northern (+ def. articles)
Danish: mælk(-en)
Faroese: mjólk(-en)
Icelandic: mjólk(-in)
Swedish: mjölk(-en)
Norwegian (Bokmål): melk(-en)
Norwegian (Nynorsk): mjølk(-en)
Czech: mléko
Kashubian: mlékò
Polabian: mlaka
Polish: mleko
Slovak: mlieko
Byelorussian: малако
Russian: молоко
Ukrainian: молоко
Bulgarian: мляко
Croatian: mlijeko
Macedonian: млеко
Slovenian: mleko
Serbian: млеко [mleko]
Aragones: lei
Asturian: lleche ; ferventáu ; maciadura ; zarapacha
Bergamasco: lac'
Biellese: lacc
Bolognese: lât
Bresciano: lat
Calabrese: latti ; latta
Catalan: llet
Dzoratâi: lacî
French: lait
Galician: leite
Italian: latte
Judeo-Spanish: leche
Ladino: lat
Latin: lac
Leonese: lleche
Lombardo Occidentale: latt ; lacc
Mantuan: lat
Mudnés: lat
Neapolitan: latte
Occitan: lait
Parmigiano: laat
Piemontese: làit
Portuguese: leite
Pugliese: latte
Reggiano: lat
Romagnolo: làt
Romanian: lapte
Romansh: latg
Sardinian (Limba Sarda Unificada): late
Sardinian Campidanesu: latti
Sardinian Logudoresu: latte
Sicilian: latti
Spanish: leche
Triestino: late
Valencian: llet
Venetian: late
Viestano: latt'
Wallon: lècê
Zeneize: læte
Albanian: qumësht
Greek: γάλα
Griko Salentino: gàla
Old Greek: γάλα
Azeri (Latin Script): süd
Korean: 우유 / 젖
Mongolian: сүү
Turkish: süt
Tatar: söt
Turkmen: süÿt
Irish: bainne
Manx: bainney
Scottish Gaelic: bainne
Welsh: llaeth
Breton: laezh
Japanese: 乳汁 [にゅうじゅう] / 牛乳 [ぎゅうにゅう] / ミルク
Basque : esne
Estonian: piim
Finnish: maito
Hungarian: tej
Mokshan: loftsa
Saami: mielki
Chechen: shura
Georgian: რძე
Bahasa Indonesian: susu
Malagasy: ronono
Malay: susu
Reo Māori (NZ): miraka (of animals) / waiū
ReoMāori (CI): vaiū
Reo Māohi: vaiū
`Ōlelo Hawai`i: waiū
Vānanga Rapa Nui: vaiū
Samoan: susu
Tetun: Susu ben
Tagalog: gatas
Somali: caano
Arabic: حليب [haliib] /لبن [laban]
Hebrew: חלב
Maltese: halib
Chinese: 牛奶 [niu2 nai3]
Vietnamese: sữa
Latvian: piens
Lithuanian: pienas
Thai: นม
Lao: ນົມ
Hindi: दूध
Kurdish Kurmanji: şîr
Kurdish Sorani: شير
Persian: شير
Ferrarese: lat
Maasai: kule
Lingala: miliki / mabele
Shona: mukaka
Swahili: maziwa
Aymara: millk'i / millk'a
Quechua (Ecuador): ñuñu
Quechua (Peruvian?): pilli
Guarani: kamby
Caló: cheripí / chutí
Canis: lata
Esperanto: lakto
Interlingua: lacte
Lingua Franca Nova: lete
Volapük: milig

Words in Your Mouth - Milk
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Glass of milk; Young sheep; Dairy farm; Shelves of milk; Cup of coffee; Kitten drinking milk; Drop of milk splashing; Slices of cheese; Ice-cream; Bars of milk chocolate

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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