As I sat there sipping on my English Breakfast tea, thinking about what to write, a friend asked me ‘Why is tea, called tea?’ Well needless to say I did not know the answer to that. In English it’s tea, in French it’s thé but in Russian and Turkish it’s chai and çay. In most of the languages there seems to be two types of forms of the word tea but why is this?
The two different forms of the word originated from China. The Chinese character for tea 茶 is pronounced differently depending on the dialect of the area. In Mandarin it is chá but in the Amoy dialect from the Fujian province it is pronounced tê. So depending on which part of the world was trading with that area of China, determined how that country would then pronounce it.
The European traders first traded with China through Xiamen, which was their main port at the time of the East India Trading Company. The traders would buy tea from China through here and as they spoke Amoy in this region they adopted the tê derivative of the word. Other countries such as Russia, Turkey, Persia and Greece brought tea overland (which was very expensive) from the provinces of China that spoke Mandarin so that’s why they all use the chá derivative in their language.
There are a few languages that do not follow these two forms and that is due to tea being a native plant to that region. In Burmese it is ‘Lahpet’, alongside with drinking tea they also pickle it and use it in salads.
So now you know where the word tea comes from! From this post you can see language doesn’t always depend on geographical location to influence each other. In this situation it was the trading routes that determined how the country adopted the word tea. What country are you from and how do you say tea? Comment below!