What will you have: tea or chai?

Sep 28, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in August 2012]

A cup of steaming-hot tea on my desk made me wonder about the names for this drink in different languages: in Russian we call it chaj, but most other languages I know—English, French, Italian, Norwegian, Hebrew—have a word that sounds like tea. Of course, English also has chai, but that word refers to an entirely different concoction, full of milk and spices that conceal the subtle aromas of the actual tea leaves. But then again, Starbucks and other companies sell so-called “chai tea” (see image) or even “chai tea latte”.





And while traveling on the road to Hana on the island of Maui, at a small fruit stand in the middle of tropical rainforest I saw a sign for “Chai banana bread” (see image), spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves—with no actual tea involved. So since linguistics is “my cuppa tea”, I decided to explore the fascinating world of tea and chai.






The World Atlas of Linguistic Structures proved extremely helpful in this respect, as it includes a whole chapter, written by Östen Dahl, on the history and geography of ‘tea’ words. Here, I quickly discovered that the words for ‘tea’ in some 230 languages illustrate in a somewhat peculiar way the spread of words together with material culture. The map reminds us that languages need not be geographically contiguous to influence each other; long-distance contacts, such as those maintained by trade relations between European countries and East Asia, can be crucial as well. Also, unlike many other patterns of lexical distribution, the spatial patterning of words for ‘tea’ stems from recent historical processes.

As the Latin name of the tea plant—Camellia sinensis—suggests, it is native to China and the nearby areas. The plant’s natural habitat stretches from Assam (northeastern India) in the west to the east coast of China and southwards into Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The beverage made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis is said to have originated in China around 2,700 BCE. It first spread to Japan around 800 CE. In Europe, drinking tea did not become common until the 17th century.


Most words for ‘tea’ around the world are ultimately of Chinese origin, but they differ in their form due to their dissemination via different routes. The differences begin on Chinese soil: most Sinitic languages have a form similar to the Mandarin chá, but Min Nan (alternatively, Fujianese, Hokkien, or Taiwanese) Chinese has instead forms like te (pronounced with a high tone in Taiwanese). The Dutch traders from the Dutch East India Company, who were the early main importers of tea into Europe, happened to have their main contacts in Amoy (Xiamen) in Fujian; as a result, they adopted the word thee, which they subsequently spread over large parts of Europe, as can be seen from the enlarged portion of the above map. The only two languages in Western Europe to have chai-based words for ‘tea’ are Basque and Portuguese (more on the latter below). The same Min Nan influence is visible in the word forms found in languages spoken in the former Dutch colonies, such as Indonesian teh, Sundanese entèh, Javanese tèh, etc.

The Dutch were responsible for first introducing tea to England in 1644, but by the 19th century most British tea was purchased directly from merchants in Canton, where the form cha was used. Still, the British never replaced their Dutch-derived word for ‘tea’. In Standard English, the vowel changed from /e:/ to /i:/ as part of the general change, known as the Great Vowel Shift (some dialects, which did not undergo the complete GVS, preserve the old form tay). This pronunciation is reflected in many languages that took over the word from English, such as Yoruba (spoken in southwestern Nigeria) tii, !Xóõ (Botswana) tîi, Cocopa (California and northern Mexico) ti.


Though the Dutch were the dominant tea importers in the 1600s, they were not the first to bring the beverage to Europe. The Portuguese started trading in tea in the 16th century, and their trade route went via Macao rather than via Amoy. Consequently Portuguese uses chá, derived from Cantonese cha. The Korean and Japanese words come from Mandarin, which also used a “cha” form,, though they retain older pronunciation, allowing us not only to trace but also to date the borrowing. Tea—both the drink and the label—also traveled overland, speading in such a manner from China to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Persia, a crucial node in trans-Eurasian trade, bequeathed the Persian grammatical suffix –yi, which shows up in the Arabic shāy, Turkish çay, and Uzbek choy. Hence also the Russian chaj, as well as the similar words found in the Finno-Ugric and Turkic languages of Central Volga and Central Asia. Such patterns of trade and linguistic borrowing also explain why related languages often have differing words for ‘tea’: for example, Finnish and Estonian both use te-based forms, while Mordvin, Mari, and Udmurt all have chai-based forms. Yet, in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki forms reminiscent of—and borrowed from—the Russian chaj are often used for black tea but never for green tea, reflecting perhaps Russians’ tea-drinking preferences. The overland trade in tea also accounts for the chai-based words in most languages of the Caucasus, with the exception of Armenian.

In spite of the general tendency for ‘tea’ words to be borrowed, quite a few languages use their own terms. Beverages made by infusion from leaves of various plants are common in many places, and some languages may have extended their words for such products. For example, the Polish and Lithuanian words for ‘tea’—herbata and arbata, respectively—derive from the name for such herbal infusions (still, the Poles use a czajnik ‘tea-kettle’ to make their herbata). Conversely, words originally used for tea have been extended to other similar drinks.

In some languages, both te– and cha-derived forms are used, but refer to different drinks. As mentioned above, in English, especially in North America, the word chai refers to the Indian masala chai (spiced tea) beverage, in contrast to tea itself. Because of this use, chai became synonymous with the spices rather than with ‘tea’: a ‘chai’ blend of “warm spices” traditionally includes ground ginger and green cardamom pods, as well as one or more of the following: cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, liquorice, or allspice. In Moroccan Colloquial Arabic, the pattern is reversed: ash-shay means ‘generic, or black Middle Eastern tea’, whereas at-tay refers particularly to green tea with fresh mint leaves.




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