We all know the word ‘tea’ but many of us also know it as ‘cha’ – both referring to the same beverage. With very minor exceptions, the world has only these two words for tea.
As we know, the Chinese were in fact the earliest to begin drinking tea. But have you ever wondered how they spread across the world and why it’s called ‘cha’, ‘chai’ or ‘shai’ in some parts of the world, and ‘tee’ or ‘teh’ in others?
This diversion shows how commerce and globalisation from hundreds of years ago have shaped our modern language. They are both derived from Chinese names, and how it was either ‘cha’ or ‘te’ (from Hokkien) that made its way around the world is an interesting story. Here’s a general rule: ‘cha’ if by land, and ‘te’ if by sea.
The Origin of Cha
The term ‘cha’ (茶) is common to many varieties of Chinese dialect.
When tea first went overland from China along the Silk Route, it was called ‘cha’. The Persians called it ‘chay’ (چای); in Arabic, it’s ‘shai’. Then the Moghuls took it to India, where it became ‘chai’ in Hindi, and similar variants in many other Indian languages (a major exception is Tamil). It even made its way to sub-Saharan Africa, where it became ‘chai’ in Swahili.
In Japan and Korea, it’s ‘cha’, because they got their tea very early on from China (before Western explorers came to the region), from monks and others travelling from the north, where it was known as ‘cha’.
The Origin of Tea
It was the Dutch who brought tea to much of Western Europe, starting from the 1600s, and they sailed from ports in Fujian province like Xiamen (then known as Amoy). In this part of China, they don’t speak Mandarin – instead, it was Hokkien, and like other Min Nan southern coastal dialects, the Chinese word (茶) for tea was pronounced ‘te’ instead of ‘cha’.
And so it’s through the Dutch that the English call it ‘tea’, the French ‘thee’, the Spanish ‘te’ and the Germans ‘tee’. That’s also how it became ‘teh’ in Malay – because tea was brought to our part of the world by traders from the southern coast of China. And over time, we had local names mixing Hokkien and Malay – like teh si kosong.
The Odd One Out: Portuguese
The Portuguese actually traded in tea from China 100 years earlier than the Dutch – they were responsible for giving Taiwan its colonial name, Formosa – and traded from Macao as their port. As this was a Cantonese-speaking area, tea was known as ‘cha’ and so it’s known as ‘cha’ in Portuguese.
The Portuguese also took ‘cha’ to parts of India. Today, India is the largest tea-drinking nation in the world, where it’s commonly referred to as ‘cha’. However, the Tamil and Telugu-speaking populations, both in India’s South, coined names for tea that are similar to ‘te’, not ‘cha’. Some think this is because the trading routes of the Dutch East India company, from Fujian province and Java, went through Tamil Nadu. Tea is called ‘the-neer’ (தேநீர்) in Tamil.
Interestingly, some countries have their own names for tea because it grows naturally there. For example, the Burmese call tea leaves ‘lakphak’ and the Rwandans call them ‘icyayi’.
The above map illustrates the 400-year-old influence of Asian culture on the seafaring Europeans of the age of exploration – through this, you’ve just learned a new word in nearly every language on the planet.