Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tea or Chai?

The word used for 'tea' in most languages around the world is derived from Chinese. However not all  languages derive the word 'tea' from the same Chinese word. Some languages get their word for tea from the Mandarin 'chá', while in other languages the word tea derives from the Min Nan Chinese word 'te'. The result is that in most languages around the world the word for 'tea' sounds something like 'chai' or 'tea'.

You can see where tea is called chai and where tea is called tea on an interactive map created by the World Atlas of Language Structures. Their Tea Map uses blue and red dots to show where the word for tea is derived from the Mandarin 'cha' (red) and where it is derived from the Min Nan Chinese 'te' (blue).

The map provides a great example of how loan words in languages are not always geographically contiguous. Languages which share common language roots or close geographical proximity may still have a different word for 'tea', with a different 'tea' or 'chai' derivation.

The World Atlas of Language Structures has a whole Tea chapter written by Östen Dahl which has a theory about how different languages come to have different derivations of 'chai' or 'tea'. According to Dahl the difference comes from whether countries were historically on a Dutch or Portuguese trade route. The Portuguese were the first European tea importers and their trade came via Macao. The later Dutch trade routes were routed via Amoy. In Macao the word used for tea was the Mandarin 'cha'. In Amoy the word used for tea was the Min Nan Chinese 'te'. Therefore whether your language uses a derivation of 'cha' or 'te' for the word 'tea' depends if you were historically on a Dutch or Portuguese trade route.

Quartz has refined Östen Dahl's theory a little. In Tea if by Sea, Cha if by Land they agree that trade routes play a major role in determining where the words 'tea' and 'cha' are used around the world. However they suggest that the major determining factor is not the Dutch and Portuguese trade routes but the sea and land trade routes from China.

They use the same data, from the World Atlas of Language Structures, to plot where people say 'tea' or 'cha'. They believe that their map clearly shows that 'cha' is used in locations which are on a land based trade route from China. Whereas 'tea' is used in places which are on a sea based trade route.

The Min Nan Chinese 'te' is spoken in the coastal province of Fujian. Which is why this 'coastal' Chinese word is used by countries in Europe who were on the Dutch sea trade routes (except for Portugal). In inland China the Mandarin 'cha' was used for tea, which is way countries on the silk road routes usually call tea 'chai' or something similar.

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