If you say ‘tea’ your language ancestors
got their tea by way of the sea. If you say ‘chai’
your language ancestors got their drink by way of land…
The other day I was wondering if the word ‘chai’ was related to the word ‘China’. In America, ‘chai’ means a spicy tea drink often in the form of a latte, but in other languages such as Russian, ‘chai’ is simply their word for tea. Since chai (as in the plant) comes from China, I thought there must be a connection. As it turns out, the words are unrelated. It is simply by chance that they resemble each other.
I also wondered why it seems as though there are two separate families of words for this beloved brewed beverage. In most of the languages with which I’m familiar, it appears they either say a version of ‘tea’ or ‘chai’. Why the fork in the road? Why the word dichotomy? This was a much more interesting discovery!
It turns out that if your language ancestors said the word ‘tea’ (England), ‘té’ (Spain), ‘thé’ (France), or ‘Tee’ (Germany) then they received their tea from sea trade. If your language ancestors said the word chai (Russia), cha (Japan), or shay (Arabic speaking countries) then they received their tea from over land or close jumps over water, not long sea voyages.
Both the Mandarin and Cantonese languages of China say a word similar to ‘cha’. Therefore if your language ancestors traded with just about any part of China, you too would say ‘cha’. This is the case for the Russians, the Indians, the Middle East, Thailand, Japan and many other countries within close proximity to China. However, there is a small dialect closely related to Taiwanese called ‘Amoy’ which is located on the Chinese central coast. They say a word more similar to our word ‘tea’. This coast, where this dialect is found, became the trading port for the Dutch East Indian Trading Company.
The Dutch East Indian Trading Company became the major supplier of tea for Europe. That is why most European countries say a variation of ‘tea’. There is one surprising exception to this rule: Portugual. Portuguese is well known for being closely related to Spanish, so why would they have a different word for such a basic drink? They say the words agua, vinho, and cerveja, just like the Spanish equivalents agua, vino, and cerveza. Why is ‘té’ said ‘chá’ in Portugal?
Portugal was one of the most advanced navies in the world just before the rise of the Dutch East Indian Trading Company. They were the first Europeans to discover the drink thanks to their advanced sea knowledge. They evidently visited a different port on that trip and picked up the word ‘chá’. They would have continued to trade the drink as it caught on in popularity within Europe (thanks to Portuguese royalty), but pressures from the Dutch East Indian Trading Company made them cease and desist their part in the tea trade. If they hadn’t, we would all say ‘cha’ to mean tea.
Finally, why do Americans refer to spicy tea as chai? This is a shortened version of the Indian drink, chai masala, which literally means spiced tea.