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Milk value, history and the linguistic trail

Updated on January 7, 2016
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Kariuki is a Museum Exhibits Designer and author of several children's and young adults story books. He is also a gifted sculptor & painter


Milk is consumed all over the world where cattle and other domestic animals are raised. There are other animals that provide milk that is acceptable to humans beside cows. In this hub, the cow and cow’s milk will be the main focus.

Below is a table that shows the words for milk in ten languages from around the world. Words for Lake, Cream and Island have been included for reasons that will be clear as the argument unfolds. The languages were selected at random except of course Kikuyu and Swahili. It was due to knowledge of these two that I noticed a pattern.

The Linguistic trail of Milk

γάλα [gala]
Νησί [nisi]
حليب [halib]
بحيرة [bwahaira]
كريم [karim]
جزيرة [jasira]
lake [lache]
Kĩrimũ [kayrimow]
Мляко [mlyako]
езеро [ezero]
Остров [ostrov]
দুধ [dudha]
হ্রদ [hrada]
ক্রিম [krima]
দ্বীপ [Dbīpa]
молоко [moloko]
Озеро [ozero]
крем [krem]
Остров [ostrov]
Notice that milk in Spanish is Leche and a lake in Latin is pronounced Lache. Spanish is an offshoot of Latin. Clearly, a lake and Milk were synonimous

The value of milk

Milk is a life giving liquid produced by all female mammals after giving birth to young ones. It is therefore primarily intended to be the first item on the menu of any baby, calf, puppy or whatever else the young is called. The very first issue of milk, called colostrum gives the baby immunity from a variety of pathogens that the mother was exposed to. This colostrum is prized by some communities as a special drink. The Luo of Kenya keep the colostrum in a container and allow it to ferment into some kind of yoghurt.

As the first diet for mammalian new-borns, milk is a complete food, with proteins and minerals. It is rich in vitamins, calcium and phosphorus in a complex suspension that includes fat globules and lactose, a sugar unique to milk.

Not everybody can digest milk efficiently. Babies are very efficient at it, but once they start learning to digest other foods, that ability is slowly lost. Some communities who survive on a milk diet have lactase persistence and can continue to digest milk in their adulthood. I strongly believe that the Masai of Kenya are one such community due to their milk rich diet. It is a sad fact that a large percentage of the milk that people consume is not useful due to a natural inability to digest it fully.

Origin of the domestic cattle

A recent study by researchers from the Tokyo institute of Technology suggests that cows, hippos and whales branched from a common ancestor in their evolution. The direct ancestor of the cow was an animal called an Auroch (72” at the shoulder or 183 cm). In Britain, the Auroch became extinct about 4000 years ago, but the last known living specimen died in the 1627 in Poland. This animal’s habitat included Europe, Asia and North Africa.

When human beings realised the value of milk, they went to great lengths to obtain it by stocking wild ancestors of the cow and then breeding them for mik production. The cow is probably the earliest animal to be domesticated for that purpose. Other animals that produce milk that is consumed by humans are goats; sheep; camels; buffalo; donkey; horses; reindeer and moose.

According to legends in East Africa, the ancestors of the Tutsi migrated to Rwanda from Egypt through Ethiopia, bringing cattle along with them. One scholar, Mutu wa Githui, believes that the Thagichu branch of the Kikuyu introduced cattle into what is today Central Kenya. Legends give the impression that these early cattle keepers were held in awe by the hunter gatherers around them. Some like the Masai crafted fabulous tales about having dropped from the sky with their cattle. This may be proof that cattle were introduced into the rest of Africa by migrants from the North.

Some shards that were found in Britain have led some scientists to conclude that milking probably started in Britain, implying that the Sumerians kept cattle without milking. Evidence from Sumer indicates that cattle keeping was rife as early as 8,000 BC. I choose to believe that the purpose of domesticating the cattle in the first place was in order to obtain the milk more easily and efficiently. It therefore does not make sense for the Sumerians to go into the trouble of keeping cattle for 5000 years for meat only. After all, meat could be obtained from hunting the Aurochs without the trouble of housing and feeding them. It is more likely, as other scientists believe that domesticating and milking cattle started in the Middle East and then spread to the rest of the world.

When King Menes was unifying Egypt in 3100 BC, cattle had already been domesticated in Egypt. In his conquest, he captured 400,000 cattle besides other animals like goats. The importance of the cow and its milk was held in such reverence that cows were dedicated to Isis the Goddess of agriculture, besides being dified as the Goddess Hathor.

The value that the ancients placed in milk is captured in scripture with the words - a land flowing with milk and honey. Such a land was seen as the ultimate place to be in – a utopia.

Cow milk is primarily for the calf, but humans have taken a liking to it.
Cow milk is primarily for the calf, but humans have taken a liking to it. | Source

Genetic evidence

Recent genetic evidence suggests that all cattle in the world today are descended from a pool of only 80 animals ( Since Aurochs were in abundance in Europe, Asia and Africa, the small number of 80 would imply that the managers of the project selected only a few specimens and then restricted them in a small area for better control of the process. This project can only have been in one yet to be identified location and not several disparate geographical locations.

Below is a video on the evolution of lactose tolerance.

What do the ten languages tell us about milk?

I have analysed the terms for milk, cream, lake and island as seen in the table above and come to the following conclusions:

A. In four out of ten (40%), the words for lake and milk appear to have the same stem:

1. Gatas /dagat-dagatan - Philipino

2. Lac/ Lake [lache] – Latin

3. Iria/iria - Kikuyu

4. Maziwa/Ziwa– Swahili

B. In seven out of ten (70%), the Word for cream has the same stem:

1.Krema, 2.[ميرك karim], 3.crema, 4.Kĩrimũ [kayrimow], 5.krem,

6.ক্রিম [krima], 7. крем [krem]

C. In five out of ten (50%) the Word for island appears to have the same stem (si).

1.Νησί [nisi], 2. ةريزج [jasira], 3.isla, 4. insula, 5.kisiwa

It would appear from this data, that in early times, milk was associated with a lake. Perhaps the people who started keeping cows for milk isolated the animals on an island in a lake to aid in domestication. In this way, the animals would be naturally contained and therefore have nowhere to run to. Further, some research has suggested that the milk from these animals was initially for other products like butter and cheese. This would appear to be true from the above data. Languages as far apart as Russian and Kikuyu have words with the same stem as is the case with 5 other languages.

The word Nisi for island in Greek is intriguing. Nisi is a word that appears in the Old Testament as a synonym for God (Jehovah Nisi). Nisi is also the archaic word for fish in Kiswahili. Fish was a symbol of royalty in ancient Egypt and can be seen in the hieroglyph of King Menes. The word for King or venerated leader in Kikuyu is ‘Mũthamaki’ – a fish with a spirit. Note also that Samak is Arabic for fish, indicating that Kikuyu and Arabic share that a root for fish from an ancient Semitic toungue. Considering that the Kikuyu did not catch fish, and neither did they eat fish, this is a very archaic term.

The first ever breeding station for cattle was on an island

Milk, at least in the initial stages of animal domestication was a liquid consumed by royalty and not every Tom Dick and Harry. Only a king would have the power to set aside an island and have a workforce maintained there to domesticate the Auroch for milking. This is in line with the evidence that all cattle are descended from only 80 animals. This would be a manageable figure on an island for the purpose of establishing a domesticated herd. Eventually, after domestication had been achieved and cattle were in abundance, they were raised on the mainland where they proliferated to the extent that there was enough milk for everyone.

Notice that Insula, the Latin word for Island also gives us Insulate - protect; shield; cut off.

Insular, another word that shares a root with the Latin word for island has the following synonyms: inward looking; Narrow; limited. These are words that describe an island very accurately.

The question that arises from this argument is – where was this island?

Unfortunately, this kind of armchair research cannot answer that question. What is clear is that it was an island in a major lake and not in the ocean or the sea. That would explain how lake became synonymous with milk. The location of this island is likely in the Middle East.

Consuming milk products preceded the drinking of fresh milk

The suggestion that milk products were first used before fresh milk was deemed fit for human consumption agrees with the data in this article. Seven out of the ten languages have KRM as the consonantal stem. The bacterial action in cheeses and yoghurts pre-digests the milk, making its nutrients more readily available to humans, especially adults. Remember that after children start eating solid foods they lose the ability to digest milk - unless they have the gene for Lactase Persistence. This scientific fact was probably known by the ancients.

Evidence of Lactase Persistence in Europeans is given by some scientists as further proof that the consumption of milk must have started in Europe since the syndrome resulted from a genetic mutation. This evidence should not be taken at face value. Though I have not done research on the Masai ability to digest Lactase, it is unlikely that they do not have ‘Lactase Persistence’ when we know that their main diet traditionally is milk and blood, with meat coming very rarely in ceremonies.

Now that you have got the gist of my argument, answer this question - What do you call Milk, Lake, Cream and Island in your language?

Answering this question will help to expand the knowledge of the writer and the reader.



2. Translation services of

3. Milk timelines -

4. Kathryn Hadley -

5. Ron Schmid, N.D.-

6. translation from "Nihon Keizai Shimbun", 14/Aug/1997-


8. Peter Goodgame -


Submit a Comment

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks DDE - do remember to take a cup of milk, knowing that we have come a long way to get it.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 

    5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    A classic and so so good for use ,milk has great benefits indeed, thanks for a well informed Hub.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks peternehemia for your comment. I did come across the word 'susu.' I do not know why the word susu is used for urine in slang in Kenya but I agree I should have been more inclusive. I will update soon and do the necessary.

  • peternehemia profile image

    Peter Nehemia 

    5 years ago from Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia

    It's a wow. Comprehensive study about milk. In Bahasa Indonesia or Melayu, however, the word is "susu". You didn't mention it in the table :) Glad to read this hub.


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