Did you know that barring a few exceptions, there are only two words for tea in the world?
One word is a variation of “cha”, like chai in Hindi, or cha in Bengali.
And then there is “te” or similar-sounding words, like tea in English or thé in French.
How did this happen?
Both these root words (“cha” and “te”) can be traced back to Chinese words for tea.
The traditional Chinese character for tea is pronounced in different ways across the country. For instance, “te” is from the southern Fujian province, while “cha” is common across several dialects of Chinese, including in Cantonese-speaking areas.
The story of “cha”
“Cha” made its way along the Silk Route around 2,000 years ago and reached Persia, where it became “chay”.
Several centuries later, Portuguese traders introduced tea to India. The shipments were sent from Macau where “cha” was used. This was the word the Portuguese adopted, and in India it was adapted to chai. Later, wherever the Portuguese introduced tea, it was called a variant of “cha”. This pronunciation even reached Africa.
Some examples of “cha” and “chay” variants:
Urdu: chai (pronounced “chai”)
Turkish: cay (pronounced “chai”)
Ukrainian: chaj (pronounced “chay”)
Swahili: chai (pronounced “chaa-i”)
Czech: čaj (pronounced “chai”)
Portuguese: chá (pronounced “cha”)
The story of “te”
As for the word “te”, it was commonly spoken around coastal areas of Chinese. It was in these areas that the Chinese interacted with foreign traders such as the Dutch. The traders, who bought large amounts of tea, carried this pronunciation along with them across the seven seas to Europe. Hence today, most languages of western Europe have a variation of the “te” pronunciation.
Spanish: té (pronounced “tay”)
French: thé (pronounced “tay”)
Swedish: te (pronounced “teh”)
Italian: te (pronounced “teh”)
Malay: the (pronounced “teh”)
Dutch: thee (pronounced “teh”)
The few exceptions
In east Asia, such as present-day Korea and Japan, the arrival of tea preceded the deluge of western traders. Hence the variations of “cha” reached these areas centuries earlier.
As for the few regions that don’t have a variation of “te” or “cha” in their language, linguists have an explanation. They conclude that the exceptions may be so since those regions already cultivated tea plants and didn’t source their tea from international traders. These languages include Burmese (lahpet) and Thai (miang).