Long before globalisation kicked in, tea had made its way in the world via sea and land
Sah, sha, cha, chaya, chaha, chai or simply tea. Indians refer to their favourite cuppa in many ways. We are obsessed with the different blends and benefits of this fragrant, stimulating beverage that we drink every day. But were you ever curious why despite its worldwide popularity, the drink is referred to in only two ways (well, chiefly) with several variations, of course?
As a topic of discussion, the etymology of tea has never garnered a lot of attention. That, however, doesn’t dwarf the fact that the journey of Camellia Sinensis from being a wild evergreen shrub to a revered symbol of the global drinking culture and a significant world trade product is worth reading up on. Let’s start from China, where tea is believed to have originated. The term cha was mostly used in Mandarin and Cantonese, but people speaking Min pronounced it like te. Eventually, these two pronunciations permeated other regions and languages around the world. Mind you, this happened much before the word ‘globalisation’ came into practice. Research points out that tea was traded more than 2,000 years ago.
Te traces its roots to southern Fujian’s Hokkien dialect. Amoy and Quanzhou were busy ports that were mostly frequented by foreign traders, particularly those from Western Europe. So, now you know how the Dutch pronunciation of thee spread to other nations of the continent. In fact, the Dutch were the main traders of the beverage between Europe and Asia in the 17th Century. Thanks to the Dutch East India Company’s robust import strategy, this wonder drink quickly made its presence felt in England (as tea), in Ireland (as tae), in France (as thé) and in Germany (as tee).
The Portuguese, on the other hand, can be credited for popularising the term cha in India. Traders from the southern European country picked it up from Canton and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau. The word cha is Sinitic, which means that it is common to several Chinese varieties of the beverage. It is important to mention here that the Japanese and Korean pronunciations of cha did not come from Cantonese. It’s likely that these would have become part of the respective cultures long before that.
These relics of history unravel another curious pathway - words sounding like cha spread across land (to be precise, along the Silk Road), while those similar to tea charted over water, thanks to the Dutch traders. The word chai, however, percolated over land to find its way into Persian dictionaries, before finding mentions in other languages - such as chay in Urdu, shay in Arabic and chay in Russian. As time passed by, chai became more synonymous with the much talked about ‘spiced tea’ that gained a lot of prominence under the influence of the Mughals. Interestingly, chai even travelled to sub-Saharan Africa, carving its way into Swahili. In Greece again, the colloquial word for tea is tsáï. This comes from Slavic chai.
Besides these adventurous routes of nomenclature, there are a few languages that prefer their own unique ways to describe tea. This is mostly noticed among the indigenous people of places where tea grows naturally. For instance, tea leaves are referred to as lakphak in Burmese.
Earlier this month, we celebrated ‘International Tea Day’. This day is especially marked in the world’s tea-producing nations - including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda and Tanzania. Apart from celebrating different teas, the aim of this day is to attract people’s attention to the impact of global tea trade on workers and growers, as well as drum up support for fair price and fair trade across the globe.