What the Word ‘Tea’ Reveals About its History

Victoria Fernandez / © Culture Trip
Victoria Fernandez / © Culture Trip
Photo of Rachel Deason
9 October 2018

From China to Iran, India to the UK, tea is central to many a country’s identity. Though every country has its own word for tea, almost all pronunciations stem from just two root words: ‘te’ and ‘cha.’ Here is the story behind the world’s words for tea.

As you relax over a cup of tea, it’s easy to forget that wars have been fought over the stuff. That it sparks fierce debate in families and among colleagues. Should it be taken plain or with milk? Can it be sweetened with honey or indulged with butter? Should it be drunk in the afternoon, as the Europeans do, or is it better taken in the morning, as those in China prefer? Yet it is this divisive beverage that, over the centuries, has bound cultures together.

How China discovered tea

According to archaeological evidence, tea was first cultivated in China around 1600 B.C., but is said to have been discovered long before that. Legend has it that in 2437 B.C., a deity named Shennong was sitting with a cauldron of boiling water next to a bush that suddenly burst aflame. The fire dried up the leaves of the bush and the heat carried them through the air, dropping them into Shennong’s cauldron. Shennong tasted the leafy water and he could see that tea had the power to counteract the poisonous effects of some 70 herbs.

Victoria Fernandez / | © Culture Trip

In the early years of tea cultivation in China, the leaves were unprocessed and had a bitter taste, earning the resulting drink the name ‘荼 tu’, meaning ‘bitter vegetable’. Mandarin’s current word for tea, ‘茶 cha’, didn’t come into recorded existence until 760 C.E., when a scholar named Lu Yu wrote the Cha Jing, or the Classic of Tea, in which he mistakenly omitted a cross stroke from the character ‘tu’, resulting in a much different word: cha.

How the word ‘cha’ travelled across the world

For nearly a thousand years, tea stayed the secret of the East. Then, in the 1500s, the Portuguese arrived in China. They’d travelled to the Far East hoping to gain a monopoly on the spice trade. But soon after tasting the brew for the first time, the explorers quickly realised its potential and decided to focus on exporting tea instead. The Portuguese called the drink cha, just like the people of southern China did. From the port of Canton – around modern-day Guangzhou – Hong Kong, and Macau, the Portuguese shipped the now-processed leaves down through Indonesia, under the southern tip of Africa, and back up to western Europe.

But long before the root word ‘cha’ made its way across the oceans to Portugal, another trade route had been spreading tea westward. These tea leaves were traversing China’s Yunnan province along the ‘Tea-Horse’ road. With bricks of tea stacked up high on the carriers’ backs, the leaf travelled to India via Persia, where the Chinese ‘cha’ turned into the Persian ‘چای chay’. Depending on the region of India, in most parts tea is known by the Hindi word, ‘चाय chai’. It is also called ‘চা cha’ in Bengali, and ‘ചായ chaya’ in Malayalam. But while most Indian dialects use some variation of the root word ‘cha’ to describe tea, there is one exception…

Victoria Fernandez / | © Culture Trip

Why the English call it ‘tea’

Around a 100 years after the Portuguese first discovered tea, the Dutch started shipping the leaf from China using their own trade routes. The Dutch first encountered tea in 1607 around the modern-day Fujian province, where Hokkien was the major language. Though the written character for tea was ‘茶’, its pronunciation varied depending on the dialect. In Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, it’s pronounced ‘cha’, whereas in Wu Chinese it’s ‘dzo’. Following in the linguistic footsteps of the Hoklo folk of Fujian, the Dutch called the drink ‘thee.

Along with the tea itself, the root word ‘te’ travelled across the oceans, as the Dutch fought through storms for months at a time to carry China’s medicinal miracle to the West. In Tamil, the word for tea leaves is ‘தேயிலை yheyilai’, while the word for the beverage is ‘தேநீர் theneer’, both of which are derived from the root ‘te’. Tamil, of course, is spoken primarily in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which was one of the stopping points on the old Dutch trade route. The root ‘te‘ also reached Indonesia – a former Dutch colony – where in Javanese the word is pronounced ‘teh‘.

Soon after the Dutch introduced the British to the wonders of tea, they were hooked. In fact, Great Britain was so addicted to tea that, in the 19th century, it began planting opium in India to be sold to China just to have a product that China would be willing to trade for tea. Of course, this move triggered two wars between China and Great Britain and ended in the forced opening of many more ports of trade for the British.

Victoria Fernandez / | © Culture Trip

A popular misconception

The popular conception is that the two major root words ‘te’ and ‘cha’ can be distinguished by whether the beverage was introduced to a certain country by land or by sea. While most countries where tea was introduced by sea use variations of ‘tea’, those to where it travelled by land use variations of the root word ‘cha’.

However, it is believed that the similarity of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese pronunciations of tea with the Chinese had nothing to do with the Europeans, but is instead because of the overarching linguistic similarities in these languages. The Japanese, who were first introduced to tea between the years 794–1195 by travelling Japanese monks, call tea ‘cha’, using the same character as China. In Korean tea is also pronounced ‘차 cha’, and in Vietnamese it is called ‘trà’.

Victoria Fernandez / | © Culture Trip

So whether you call it ‘tea’ or ‘cha’ or something in between, it is clear that, through everything, tea has brought countries and cultures closer together. Whether you drink it from a bag or loose-leafed, with milk or without, in the morning or afternoon, the way you say ‘tea’ is an experience you share with billions of others.

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