the Words for Tea

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The Chinese character for “tea” (”cha”)

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?

examples:
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 riddles, 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 Imperialism.

sources:

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5 Comments

  1. thanks for the interesting info on tea and linguistics. I also noticed the cha and tea thing.

  2. I’m glad you found it interesting. I could spend hours and hours reading about the origins and political implications of words.

  3. Hi in Swedish it’s spelled “te” but old women of about 60 who sell tea (usually flavored teas to other people of same age, without much knowledge of tea) like to spell the words as they think it’s spelled in french or english, even though they have no idea how it’s actually spelled in those languages, so there are loads of variants spelled by such people: the, thea, thé, té, tè, thè, thé, thee, tea, téa and so on

    The few good quality tea stores however always spell the word tea as “te” and nothing else.

    I think the t-words in european might come from Malaysian/indonesian (same language really) where the word for tea is “teh”. A lot of dutchmen imported tea from that area to europe early on so that could be it. Not sure though.

    • Thank you for your comments on word use in Sweden. I bet you’re right about the Indonesian “teh” coming to Scandinavia by way of Dutch traders.

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