“Would you like to try our iced Chai Latte?” Probably not or I would have ordered it. How about a nice cold tea with milk?
It’s all in the marketing
I have an MBA and I consulted for the Small Business Development Center for the State of Arizona for a few years, so I totally get marketing. ‘Latte’ sounds so much better than milk, so much more Italian (it is). Milk is for babies and small children. Trendy adults use latte. Milk is bland, like, well, milk. Latte is international and sophisticated. I imagine if James Bond was a coffee drinker he’d order it with latte.
But James Bond is English so he drinks tea. But I imagine he does not go about ordering chai latte. The Bond of my imagination uses the words tea and milk. But why not chai? Isn’t chai the same as tea? Or is it something different?
This question has haunted me for decades.
Tea and chai, same meaning, different word
I think it’s the same thing. I think this because, in my travels, half of the tea-drinking world offers tea and the other half offers chai. Having had both many times, I declare them to be the same drink.
I understand that chai may have a different meaning in the U.S. because it’s usually mixed with other stuff and is usually sweet. And chai refers to a specific drink in India. I’m not referring to either of those definitions of chai. I am interested in the leaf Camellia sinensis that you pour hot water over to make tea.
Why is the world divided between chai and tea?
So, why is tea pronounced both so similar to the English word ‘tea’ in so much of the world and so differently, ‘chai’, in other parts?
I can recall having asked for tea, tè, thé, តែ (te), teh, and te, all of which sound almost exactly like ‘tea’ in English, Italian, Spanish, French, Khmer, Malay, and Norwegian, respectively. And having asked for çaj, 茶 (Chá), τσάι (tsái), ชา (Chā), Çay, trà, all of which sound similar to ‘chai’ in Albanian, Chinese (Mandarin), Burmese, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese, respectively.
Whether I’d asked for tè or çaj I got some type of tea with each ask.
Excluding scientific and technical words and terms, few words that are both so universal and bifurcated.
How did this happen?
The origins of tea and chai
As usual, I canceled all appointments, cleared my calendar, did not wash the dishes, and started investigating.
The search started by determining where the tea plant originated. Camellia sinensis is indigenous to Asia, from northeastern India to the coast of China and south to Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Camellia sinensis’s first known use as a drink started almost 5,000 years ago in 2,700 BCE in China. But tea did not become popular in Europe until the 1600s.
For those of you who like to compare tea and coffee, it’s not so simple because coffee as we think of it today, requires processing, in particular, roasting and grinding. So, coffee, as in the drink we use now, did not come about until around the 1200s.
Back to tea. The original word for tea is thus Chinese and that word, unsurprisingly, is closer to chai (its ‘cha’) than tea. But over the centuries on the islands east of China, Taiwan and what is now Japan, and the extreme east coast of China, the word morphed to a sound closer to tea.
Tea and chai come to Europe
Centuries later the Dutch East India Company became the primary tea importers to Europe. They were getting their tea from the Fujian area on the east coast near Taiwan. Thus, they learned the word for this wonderful new drink as ‘tea’ and that word spread across Europe. As the European nations invaded other parts of the world, particularly the Dutch and English, the word ‘tea’ invaded those areas too.
Not all European countries used the word tea. This is because the Portuguese were also importing tea and they got their tea via Macau and the word there was ‘cha’. Thus, the Portuguese word for tea is chá and that word spread to their colonies.
Camellia sinensis is just one of many types of plants that, with the application of hot water, produces a flavorful drink. In many places people use other plants to make a ‘tea’. And many languages have their own names for tea. Polish uses herbata and Lithuanian arbata. Lao uses laathpaatrai.
Tea also traveled on land routes from China to Eastern Europe and the Middle East under the label ‘cha’. Thus, Arabic, Russian, and Turkish, among many others, have pronunciations similar to cha.
You can see all of these migrations in the map below.
Where the two words meet there is often a mixed-use. The Finnish word for tea is ‘tee’ but in Eastern Finland chaj is used for black tea but never for green tea.
My quest complete
So, the answer to this haunting, decades-old issue (for me) is simply
- Tea originated in China called cha.
- The word cha diverged into tea on the east coast of China and the nearby islands.
- The word cha spread across central Asia to the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
- The Dutch brought tea to Europe as ‘tea’
- This word spread to European colonies.
- The Portuguese brought tea to Europe as ‘cha’.
- This word spread to Portugal’s colonies.
Today the sound
- Cha is found in 110 areas
- Te in 84 areas
- Other names in 36 areas
This map shows the distribution of cha (red), tea (blue), and other names (gray).
Östen Dahl. 2013. Tea. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. http://wals.info/chapter/138, Accessed on 2020-05-26.)