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What will you have: tea or chai?

Submitted by on August 6, 2012 – 9:25 pm 22 Comments |  

A cup of steaming-hot tea on my desk made me wonder about the names for this drink in different languages: in Russian we call it chaj, but most other languages I know—English, French, Italian, Norwegian, Hebrew—have a word that sounds like tea. Of course, English also has chai, but that word refers to an entirely different concoction, full of milk and spices that conceal the subtle aromas of the actual tea leaves. But then again, Starbucks and other companies sell so-called “chai tea” (see image) or even “chai tea latte”.


And while traveling on the road to Hana on the island of Maui, at a small fruit stand in the middle of tropical rainforest I saw a sign for “Chai banana bread” (see my photo on the left), spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves—with no actual tea involved. So since linguistics is “my cuppa tea”, I decided to follow up on the earlier GeoCurrents post on hot caffeinated beverages by exploring the fascinating world of tea and chai words.

The World Atlas of Linguistic Structures proved extremely helpful in this respect, as it includes a whole chapter, written by Östen Dahl, on the history and geography of ‘tea’ words. Here, I quickly discovered that the words for ‘tea’ in some 230 languages illustrate in a somewhat peculiar way the spread of words together with material culture. The map reminds us that languages need not be geographically contiguous to influence each other; long-distance contacts, such as those maintained by trade relations between European countries and East Asia, can be crucial as well. Also, unlike many other patterns of lexical distribution, the spatial patterning of words for ‘tea’ stems from recent historical processes.

As the Latin name of the tea plant—Camellia sinensis—suggests, it is native to China and the nearby areas. The plant’s natural habitat stretches from Assam (northeastern India) in the west to the east coast of China and southwards into Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The beverage made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis is said to have originated in China around 2,700 BCE. It first spread to Japan around 800 CE. In Europe, drinking tea did not become common until the 17th century.

Most words for ‘tea’ around the world are ultimately of Chinese origin, but they differ in their form due to their dissemination via different routes. The differences begin on Chinese soil: most Sinitic languages have a form similar to the Mandarin chá, but Min Nan (alternatively, Fujianese, Hokkien, or Taiwanese) Chinese has instead forms like te (pronounced with a high tone in Taiwanese). The Dutch traders from the Dutch East India Company, who were the early main importers of tea into Europe, happened to have their main contacts in Amoy (Xiamen) in Fujian; as a result, they adopted the word thee, which they subsequently spread over large parts of Europe, as can be seen from the enlarged portion of the above map. The only two languages in Western Europe to have chai-based words for ‘tea’ are Basque and Portuguese (more on the latter below). The same Min Nan influence is visible in the word forms found in languages spoken in the former Dutch colonies, such as Indonesian teh, Sundanese entèh, Javanese tèh, etc.

The Dutch were responsible for first introducing tea to England in 1644, but by the 19th century most British tea was purchased directly from merchants in Canton, where the form cha was used. Still, the British never replaced their Dutch-derived word for ‘tea’. In Standard English, the vowel changed from /e:/ to /i:/ as part of the general change, known as the Great Vowel Shift (some dialects, which did not undergo the complete GVS, preserve the old form tay). This pronunciation is reflected in many languages that took over the word from English, such as Yoruba (spoken in southwestern Nigeria) tii, !Xóõ (Botswana) tîi, Cocopa (California and northern Mexico) ti.

Though the Dutch were the dominant tea importers in the 1600s, they were not the first to bring the beverage to Europe. The Portuguese started trading in tea in the 16th century, and their trade route went via Macao rather than via Amoy. Consequently Portuguese uses chá, derived from Cantonese cha. The Korean and Japanese words come from Mandarin, which also used a “cha” form,, though they retain older pronunciation, allowing us not only to trace but also to date the borrowing. Tea—both the drink and the label—also traveled overland, speading in such a manner from China to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Persia, a crucial node in trans-Eurasian trade, bequeathed the Persian grammatical suffix –yi, which shows up in the Arabic shāy, Turkish çay, and Uzbek choy. Hence also the Russian chaj, as well as the similar words found in the Finno-Ugric and Turkic languages of Central Volga and Central Asia. Such patterns of trade and linguistic borrowing also explain why related languages often have differing words for ‘tea’: for example, Finnish and Estonian both use te-based forms, while Mordvin, Mari, and Udmurt all have chai-based forms. Yet, in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki forms reminiscent of—and borrowed from—the Russian chaj are often used for black tea but never for green tea, reflecting perhaps Russians’ tea-drinking preferences. The overland trade in tea also accounts for the chai-based words in most languages of the Caucasus, with the exception of Armenian.

In spite of the general tendency for ‘tea’ words to be borrowed, quite a few languages use their own terms. Beverages made by infusion from leaves of various plants are common in many places, and some languages may have extended their words for such products. For example, the Polish and Lithuanian words for ‘tea’—herbata and arbata, respectively—derive from the name for such herbal infusions (still, the Poles use a czajnik ‘tea-kettle’ to make their herbata). Conversely, words originally used for tea have been extended to other similar drinks.

In some languages, both te- and cha-derived forms are used, but refer to different drinks. As mentioned above, in English, especially in North America, the word chai refers to the Indian masala chai (spiced tea) beverage, in contrast to tea itself. Because of this use, chai became synonymous with the spices rather than with ‘tea’: a ‘chai’ blend of “warm spices” traditionally includes ground ginger and green cardamom pods, as well as one or more of the following: cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, liquorice, or allspice. In Moroccan Colloquial Arabic, the pattern is reversed: ash-shay means ‘generic, or black Middle Eastern tea’, whereas at-tay refers particularly to green tea with fresh mint leaves.


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  • Peter

    It’s interesting how chai the milk and spice beverage basically came out of nowhere in a very short time.  I don’t believe I even heard the term until maybe 10 years ago, now it’s everywhere.  

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Probably true. Yet it’s not uncommon for words to “come out of nowhere” and become very popular over time. Just a couple more examples of recent neologisms from the last decade are “Chindia” and “webinar”. Even grammatical changes can happen really quickly—yet remain “below the radar” as far as most speakers are concerned:

      • James T. Wilson

        I first saw it used of this beverage at Starbucks in the early 1980s. That is where I would start looking if I wanted to trace the origin of its use in the USA.

  • Etnolinguistica.Org

    Nice post! Cool that Basque has a ‘cha’ word for tea, like Portuguese. Any idea on how that happened?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you! The Basque chai is mysterious to me, I was wondering about that myself. Any ideas anyone?

      • Dave McDougall

        I don’t speak Basque, but I was under the impression they used a version of “te,” as in “katilu bat te” (“a cup of tea”) — what do you have as the Basque word?

  • Przemyslaw

    Really nice post. I hadn’t realized until now that Polish ‘czajnik’ comes from chai. There is in Polish the word czaj (chai) as well. But its usage is contrained to slang (mostly prisoner slang) and means very strong tea made in characteristic way.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is interesting! I wonder why this particular type of tea is called “chaj”?

      • Maiki Bodhisattva

        I believe Polish prison slang borrows a lot from Russian. or at least it used to. (compare Clockwork Orange)

        also to comment on ‘czajnik’, a colleague of mine who moved to Poland from Belarus (Russian speaker) was trying to buy a kettle. He already knew we say ‘herbata’ not ‘czaj’ so he logically assumed the device would be called ‘herbatnik’ which actually is a Polish name for a cookie often had with tea:)

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          That’s funny! Thanks for sharing.

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  • Paul Treadaway

    Cha used to be a colloquial term for tea in the UK, though I suspect it is only used by older generations now.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I’ve heard about this, but never heard the word actually used…

      • James T. Wilson

        I have usually seen it spelled with a final r, as in “charlady,” though I imagine that is just to get the pronunciation right in the non-rhotic home counties accent.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          As far as I can tell, “charwoman” is much older than tea/chai, going back to 1590s and the first part is derived from the same root as “chore”:

          • James T. Wilson

            Oh, really. I always connected it with tea, but it was a word I only heard in my childhood, so I suppose it is a child’s understanding. My friends and I used to refer to the lady who sat at the end of the train car on Soviet trains with a samovar as the “chai lady.” How would a Russian actually have referred to her?

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Hah! Referring to the lady at the end of the train car as the “chai lady” is about as accurate as calling today’s flight attendants “pretzel ladies”… :)

            The train lady in Russian is “provodnica” (feminine from “provodnik”) — something like “the accompanying one”.

          • Phil_Daniels

            This is also my understanding.

            ‘Charlady’ was used when referring to a part time domestic worker. My grandmother told of doing some ‘charring’ during the depression. My mother had a ‘charlady’ who would come to the house a couple of times a week to ‘do’ for her. And as late the ’90′s I had a couple of elderly aunts who referred to their ‘carers’ as their ‘charladys’.

            The lady who wheeled around the tea trolley at workplaces was known as the ‘tea-lady’ . I can’t recall them ever being referred to as ‘charladies’, I suspect they would have been annoyed had one done so.

            ‘Cha’ was often used in a jokey sense as in “Oh, a cup of cha would be a delight.” Usually said in mock Jane Austen-ese.

            East Londoners referred to tea as ‘Rosy Lea’, usually shortened to ‘Rosy’. One origin I’ve seen is that Rosy Lea was a burlesque performer. But I suspect it derives from the River Lea, which joins the Thames in East London. Perhaps pollution from the barley malting works up-stream at Ware discoloured the river so that it resembled tea.

            I drank spiced milky tea in Bombay and Pune in the early ‘70’s, my memory is that we called it Masala Chai, but the ‘boy’ who delivered it was known the ‘cha-wallah’, so this maybe a source of the confusion.


          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this, Phil. As for “Rosy Lea”, it is probably an example of Cockney rhyming slang…

  • Linguist in hiding

    I sometimes wonder about linguistic facts (especially when they belong to my expertise) presented here but this one is really odd.

    > Yet, in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki forms reminiscent of—and borrowed from—the Russian chaj are often used for black tea but never for green tea, reflecting perhaps Russians’ tea-drinking preferences.

    1) I suppose there are people out there who make a difference between black tea and green tea (I suppose it is the colour of the leaves). I would consider those people tea connoisseurs or hobbyists.

    2) I have never met a Finn who makes (or understands) this difference.

    3) The “word” sai is(/was) used by Eastern Finns for tea, whatever the quality. Actually, I’m sure the nominative singular form is quite rare, partitive singular form sajjuu being used almost always in speech.

    4) I don’t think the “word” reminiscent of tea was ever used by Eastern Finns, except maybe somewhere in the borderlands between Western and Eastern Finland…

    All in all I don’t know but your description of the facts just sounds really odd.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I make a very clear distinction between black and green tea: only the former can be referred to simply as “tea”, while the latter has to be qualified as “green tea”. I don’t consider myself a “tea connoisseur or hobbyist” though. I am not sure if Finns are less clear on the kinds of tea, but elsewhere clear default kind of tea exists as well… Your comment #3 is about use, not language: obviously, one most typically speaks of some quantity of tea (cup, pot, etc.), so the partitive form is called for more frequently. It doesn’t mean that the nominative form doesn’t exist… As for the dialect differences, I simply cited the description I’ve read elsewhere, as perhaps the picture is more complicated than what I’ve described.

  • Arturs Lunevs

    There’s a mistake in the map. In Latvian language “tēja” is the word for “tea” which originates from “te” not “cha”.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the correction, Arturs.