Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *rneːlʔ): semantic 女 + phonetic 乃 (OC *nɯːʔ).
The old form was 嬭. Similar words in the area include Proto-Hmong-Mien *niaʔ²ᴰ (“mother”), Tibetan ཨ་ནེ (a ne), ནེ་ནེ (ne ne, “paternal aunt”), Khmer ញី (ñii, “female”). It may be comparable with Proto-Sino-Tibetan *s-nja-n (“breast; milk; suck”), whence Sichuan Yi ꑍ (nyip, “liquid milk”), ꀉꆂ (ax nie, “breast; milk”).
It is unknown how the Min forms relate to forms in other dialects. See this article for a discussion of the Min Nan etymon. For similar nasalisations in Min, compare 耳 (ěr).
Colloquial words in different Min dialects show considerable variation – most have an n- initial, but finals and tones differ greatly (although the tone is never a rising tone). Some propose that this is substrate influence, passed on from the maternal Baiyue lineages since the intermarriages between southward-migrating Han Chinese and native non-Han women. Other southern dialects also show remnants of this native word: Hakka [Meixian] nɛn5, Cantonese [Guangzhou] nin1 (姩 or 𢆡). Compare Thai นม (nom, “breast; breastmilk”), Zhuang noemz (“breast; breastmilk”).
The long-recognised Sino-Tibetan etymon in Chinese is 乳 (OC *njoʔ); see there for more.
- woman's breasts
- milk; breastmilk
- to nurse
- to breastfeed; to suckle
- infant; infantile
- 乳 (rǔ, “breast; breastmilk”)