The Different Words for Tea

by Cinnabar on May 17, 2010

in Uncategorized

Have you ever wondered why, when most of the major tea-growing regions of the world, including China, where the tea plant was originally cultivated, all use some variant of the word “cha” to indicate tea and the plant that it comes from, almost all of the Western countries call it “tea” or variants of that word?

Chinese (Mandarin): cha
Japan: cha
Persia: cha
Arabic: chai
Turkish: chay
Russian: chai
Indian: cha
Sri Lankan: cha
Pakistani: cha
Bangladesh: cha

English: tea
German: tee
French: thé

As is the case with many linguistic puzzles, the answer lies along trade routes. The British established trade posts in Xiamen, in the Fujian Province of China, during the Ming Dynasty, mid-seventeenth century. In Xiamen, the word approximately pronounced “tay” is used rather than the Mandarin “cha.” The British spelled it “tea,” which splintered off into the words “thé” in France and “tee” in Germany.

In contrast, the word “char” is a common slang term for tea in Britain, which most likely emerged out of 19th and 20th century British trade with other tea producing regions that use “cha” or related terms.

Guest post provided by Cinnabar of Gongfu Girl.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil Desai May 20, 2010 at 17:30

Hmm, I never thought about why it was different. Thanks for the info.

Jason May 18, 2010 at 20:30

According to Mair & Hoh (The True History of Tea), they say both “cha” and “te” go back to A.D. 600, where they sprang from an even earlier pronunciation. Then you get into the character development/change.

Feds May 17, 2010 at 20:49

I can see how ‘cha’ could become ‘chay’ and then ‘tay’. But since the use of tea leaves for medicine and drinking came from Yunnan, I wonder if tay was an even earlier 闵话 minhua word than the Mandarin cha. After all, the Viet/Yue peoples dominated southern China up until around 2000 years ago when tea started to become a popular drink and would have traded with peoples in what is today Yunnan.

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