You can always order tea

Yesterday, Sherry and I made sure to call up our Dad and wish him Happy Father’s Day. You see, in Mandarin, August 8th (eight eight), when spoken aloud, sounds like “baba” = 爸爸 = dad. I think most people, regardless of what language(s) they speak, recognize that baba sounds like papa. Papa is considered a near-universal word. This piqued my interest as a budding linguist to look for more near-universal words. And it turns out, one of them is tea. There are primarily two sounds that connote tea. And apparently, I, without knowing until now, had already mastered them BOTH as a young child because I speak both Mandarin and Taiwanese.

Cha or Dé

The character for tea is 茶, or cha. This is, at least, how to pronounce the character in Mandarin. Yet, the exact same character can be pronounced differently depending on various dialects. The Hokkien or Minnan (閩南) dialect (or modern day Taiwanese), which originated from the coastal province of Fujian, China, pronounces this character as (my own phonetic spelling). And knowing these two ways of speaking tea is enough to equip you as a world traveler.

First, there is cha. Albeit there are differences in spelling among different languages, the “ch” sound remains similar. Cha (where the “a” sound is a bit flat) or shah (where the “a” sound gets a rising intonation) can get you a cup of tea ranging from Somalia (shaah) to Tibet (ja) to Vietnam (che) to Korea (cha). Chai, which supposedly has Persian origins (chay) can get you a cup of tea in countries that, for example, speak Arabic, Bulgarian, or Russian.

Alternatively, tea (or or te) can get you a cup of tea when spoke in various Asian, European, and African countries. For example, tee is the word in Afrikaans-speaking countries while le thé is the phrase to use in French-speaking countries. Finally, te will serve you well in, for example, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

Tea by Sea, Cha by Land

Seemingly, at first glance, this universality of tea makes little sense. How is it that a world traveler can just get by with some variation of tea or cha?

Tea originated from China. Traders on ships learned some version of “tea” whereas traders on for example, the Silk Road, learned some version of “cha.” The map below illustrates trading routes and we find that it is tea if by sea and cha if by land. For the most part, each language calls tea tea or cha depending on how it arrived in the regions where the language is spoken.

Portugal: a case study

Interestingly, the Portuguese word for tea is chá. Why do the Portuguese, who also received their tea by ships, not call their tea tea like their European counterparts? The answer lies in whom the Portuguese traded with. You see, to the south of Fujian province and Taiwan lays Macau. The Portuguese were trading for tea in Macau, a region in China where Cantonese is spoken—tea is cha in Cantonese. Have you ever heard dim sum referred to as yum cha?

I should warn you that there are, of course, some exceptions to this delightful linguistic find. For example, when in Poland, tea is herbata. Herba, having roots in Latin, means grass, herb, or weeds. Another example would be, when in Burma, use laphet (can be spelled differently). This word has Mon-Khmer origins as la means tea or leaf.

Next time you are in a foreign country, fumbling for words to order something to drink, you now know you always have a fall back on some phonetic version of cha or tea.

And you are welcome. ☕️

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