Etymology of tea

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The etymology of the word tea can be traced back to the various Chinese pronunciations of the word. Nearly all the words for tea worldwide, fall into three broad groups: te, cha and chai, which reflected the history of transmission of tea drinking culture and trade from China to countries around the world.[1] The few exceptions of words for tea that do not fall into these three broad groups are mostly from the minor languages from the botanical homeland of the tea plant, and likely to be the ultimate origin of the Chinese words for tea.[2]


The Chinese character for tea is , originally written with an extra horizontal stroke as (pronounced tu, used as a word for a bitter herb), and acquired its current form in the Tang Dynasty first used in the eighth-century treatise on tea The Classic of Tea.[3][4][5] The word is pronounced differently in the different varieties of Chinese, such as chá in Mandarin, zo and dzo in Wu Chinese, and ta and te in Min Chinese.[6][7] One suggestion is that the different pronunciations may have arisen from the different words for tea in ancient China, for example tu (荼) may have given rise to ;[8] historical phonologists however argued that the cha, te and dzo all arose from the same root with a reconstructed hypothetical pronunciation dra (dr- represents a single consonant for a retroflex d), which changed due to sound shift through the centuries.[2] Other ancient words for tea include jia (, defined as "bitter tu" during the Han Dynasty), she (), ming (, meaning "fine, special tender tea") and chuan (), with ming the only other word still in use for tea.[2][9] Most Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, pronounce it along the lines of cha, but Hokkien varieties along the Southern coast of China and in Southeast Asia pronounce it like teh. These two pronunciations have made their separate ways into other languages around the world:[10]

  • Te is from the Amoy of southern Fujian province. The ports of Xiamen (Amoy) and Quanzhou were once major points of contact with foreign traders. Western European traders such as the Dutch may have taken this pronunciation either directly from Fujian or Formosa where they had established a port, or indirectly via Malay traders in Bantam, Java.[11] The Dutch then spread this pronunciation of tea to Western Europe. This pronunciation gives rise to English "tea" and similar words in other languages, and is the most common form worldwide.
  • Cha is from the Cantonese chàh of Guangzhou (Canton) and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau, also major points of contact, especially with the Portuguese, who spread it to India in the 16th century. The Korean and Japanese pronunciations of cha, however, came not from Cantonese, rather they were borrowed into Korean and Japanese during earlier periods of Chinese history.

A third form, chai, is likely to have come from Persian چای chay. Both the châ and chây forms are found in Persian dictionaries.[12] They are thought to have been derived from Northern Chinese pronunciation of chá,[13] which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix -yi before passing on to Russian, Arabic, Turkish, etc.[14] The chai pronunciation was introduced into India by the Mughals, and entered English via Hindi-Urdu.[2]

English has all three forms: cha or char (both pronounced /ˈɑː/), attested from the late 16th century;[15] tea, from the 17th;[16] and chai, from the 20th.[17]

Languages in more intense contact with Chinese, Sinospheric languages like Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, may have borrowed their words for tea at an earlier time and from a different variety of Chinese, in the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations. Although normally pronounced as cha, Japanese also retains the early but now uncommon pronunciations of ta and da, similarly Korean also has ta in addition to cha, and Vietnamese trà in addition to chè.[18] The different pronunciations for tea in Japanese arose from the different times the pronunciations were borrowed into the language: Ta comes from the Tang Dynasty court at Chang'an: that is, from Middle Chinese; da however comes from the earlier Southern Dynasties court at Nanjing, a place where the consonant was still voiced, as it is today in neighbouring Shanghainese zo.[citation needed] Vietnamese and Zhuang have southern cha-type pronunciations.

The few exceptions of words for tea that do not fall into the three broad groups of te, cha and chai are the minor languages from the botanical homeland of the tea plant.[2] Examples are la (meaning tea purchased elsewhere) and miiem (wild tea gathered in the hills) from the Wa people of northeast Burma and southwest Yunnan, letpet in Burmese and meng in Lamet meaning "fermented tea leaves", as well as miang in Thai ("fermented tea"). These languages belong to the Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman and Tai families of languages now found in South East Asia and southwest of China. Scholars have suggested that the Austro-Asiatic languages may be the ultimate source of the word tea, including the various Chinese words for tea such as tu, cha and ming. Cha for example may have been derived from an archaic Austro-Asiatic root word *la, meaning "leaf", used by an ancient people from southwest China, while ming may be from the Mon–Khmer meng (fermented tea leaves). The Sinitic, Tibeto-Burman and Tai speakers who came into contact with the Austro-Asiatic speakers then borrowed their words for tea.[19]

Etymological observations[edit]

The different words for tea fall into two main groups: "te-derived" (Min) and "cha-derived" (Cantonese and Mandarin).[14] The words that various languages use for "tea" reveal where those nations first acquired their tea and tea culture.

  • Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to import the herb in large amounts. The Portuguese borrowed their word for tea (chá) from Cantonese in the 1550s via their trading posts in the south of China, especially Macau.[20]
  • In Central Asia, Mandarin cha developed into Persian chay, and this form spread with Central Asian trade and cultural influence.
  • Russia (chai) encountered tea in Central Asia.
  • The Dutch word for "tea" (thee) comes from Min Chinese. The Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade directly from Fujian or Formosa, or from Malay traders in Java who had adopted the Min pronunciation as teh.[11][20] The Dutch first imported tea around 1606 from Macao via Bantam, Java,[21] and played a dominant role in the early European tea trade through the Dutch East India Company, influencing other European languages, including English, French (thé), Spanish (), and German (Tee).[20]
  • The Dutch first introduced tea to England in 1644.[20] By the 19th century, most British tea was purchased directly from merchants in Canton, whose population uses cha, the English however kept its Dutch-derived Min word for tea, although char is sometimes used colloquially to refer to the drink in British English (see below).

At times, a te form will follow a cha form, or vice versa, giving rise to both in one language, at times one an imported variant of the other.

  • In North America, the word chai is used to refer almost exclusively to the Indian masala chai (spiced tea) beverage, in contrast to tea itself.
  • The inverse pattern is seen in Moroccan colloquial Arabic (Darija), shay means "generic, or black Middle Eastern tea" whereas tay refers particularly to Zhejiang or Fujian green tea with fresh mint leaves. The Moroccans are said to have acquired this taste for green tea—unique in the Arab world—after the ruler Mulay Hassan exchanged some European hostages captured by the Barbary pirates for a whole ship of Chinese tea. See Moroccan tea culture.
  • The colloquial Greek word for tea is tsáï, from Slavic chai. Its formal equivalent, used in earlier centuries, is téïon, from .
  • The Polish word for a tea-kettle is czajnik, which could be derived directly from chai or from the cognate Russian word. However, tea in Polish is herbata, which, as well as Lithuanian arbata, was derived from the Dutch herba thee, although a minority believes that it was derived Latin herba thea, meaning "tea herb."[18]
  • The normal word for tea in Finnish is tee, which is a Swedish loan. However, it is often colloquially referred to, especially in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki, as tsai, tsaiju, saiju or saikka, which is cognate to the Russian word chai. The latter word refers always to black tea, while green tea is always tee.
  • In Ireland, or at least in Dublin, the term cha is sometimes used for "tea," as is pre-vowel-shift pronunciation "tay" (from which the Irish Gaelic word tae is derived[citation needed]). Char was a common slang term for tea throughout British Empire and Commonwealth military forces in the 19th and 20th centuries, crossing over into civilian usage.
  • The British slang word "char" for "tea" arose from its Cantonese Chinese pronunciation "cha" with its spelling affected by the fact that ar is a more common way of representing the phoneme /ɑː/ in British English.

Derivatives of te[edit]

Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name
Afrikaans tee Armenian թեյ [tʰɛj] Basque tea Belarusian гарба́та (harbáta)(1) Catalan te
Cassubian (h)arbata(1) Czech or thé(2) Danish te Dutch thee English tea
Esperanto teo Estonian tee Faroese te Finnish tee French thé
West Frisian tee Galician German Tee Greek τέϊον téïon Hebrew תה, te
Hungarian tea Icelandic te Indonesian teh Irish tae Italian
Javanese tèh Kannada ಟೀಸೊಪ್ಪು ṭīsoppu Khmer តែ tae scientific Latin thea Latvian tēja
Leonese Limburgish tiè Lithuanian arbata(1) Low Saxon Tee [tʰɛˑɪ] or Tei [tʰaˑɪ] Malay teh
Malayalam തേയില tēyilai Maltese Norwegian te Occitan Polish herbata(1)
Scots tea [tiː] ~ [teː] Scottish Gaelic , teatha Sinhalese තේ Spanish Sundanese entèh
Swedish te Tamil தேநீர் tēnīru (3) Telugu తేనీరు tēnīr (4) Western Ukrainian gerbata(1) Welsh te


  • (1) from Latin herba thea, found in Polish, Western Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Belarusian and Kashubian (for Belarussian and Western Ukrainian the g- is pronounced as h-)[18]
  • (2) or thé, but this term is considered archaic and is a literary expression; since roughly the beginning of the 20th century, čaj is used for "tea" in Czech language, see the following table
  • (3) nīr means water; tēyilai means "tea leaf" (ilai "leaf")
  • (4) nīru means water; ṭīyāku means "tea leaf" (āku = leaf in Telugu)

Derivatives of cha[edit]

Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name
Chinese Chá Assamese চাহ sah Bengali চা cha Kapampangan cha Cebuano tsá
English cha or char Gujarati ચા chā Japanese 茶, ちゃ cha(1) Kannada ಚಹಾ chahā Khasi sha
Punjabi ਚਾਹ cha Korean cha(1) Kurdish ça Lao ຊາ /saː˦˥/ Marathi चहा chahā
Oḍiā ଚା cha Persian چای chā Portuguese chá Sindhi chahen چانهه Somali shaah
Sylheti ছা sa Tagalog tsaá Thai ชา /t͡ɕʰaː˧/ Tibetan ཇ་ ja Vietnamese trà and chè(2)


  • (1) The main pronunciations of in Korea and Japan are cha and ちゃ cha, respectively. (Japanese ocha (おちゃ) is honorific.) These are connected with the pronunciations at the capitals of the Song and Ming dynasties.
  • (2) Trà and chè are variant pronunciations of 茶; the latter is used mainly in northern Vietnam and describes a tea made with freshly picked leaves.

Derivatives of chay[edit]

Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name Language Name
Albanian çaj Amharic ሻይ shay Arabic شاي shāy Assyrian Neo-Aramaic ܟ݈ܐܝ chai Eastern Armenian թեյ tey
Azerbaijani çay Bosnian čaj Bulgarian чай chai Chechen чай chay Croatian čaj
Czech čaj English chai Finnish dialectal tsai, tsaiju, saiju or saikka Georgian ჩაი chai Greek τσάι tsái
Hindi चाय chāy Kazakh шай shai Kyrgyz чай chai Kinyarwanda icyayi Judaeo-Spanish צ'יי chai
Macedonian чај čaj Malayalam ചായ chaaya Mongolian цай tsai Nepali chiyā चिया Pashto چای chay
Persian چای chāī (1) Romanian ceai Russian чай chay Serbian чај čaj Slovak čaj
Slovene čaj Swahili chai Tajik чой choy Tatar çäy Tlingit cháayu
Turkish çay Turkmen çaý Ukrainian чай chai Urdu چائے chai Uzbek choy


  • (1) Derived from the earlier pronunciation چا cha.


Language Name Language Name Language Name
Japanese da, た ta (1) Korean da [ta] (1) Burmese lahpet [ləpʰɛʔ](2)
Thai miang(3) Lamet meng Tai la
  • (1) Note that cha is the common pronunciation of "tea" in Japanese and Korean.
  • (2) Fermented tea leaves eaten as a meal
  • (3) Fermented tea


  1. ^ Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. pp. 262–264. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  2. ^ a b c d e Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. pp. 264–265. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  3. ^ Albert E. Dien (2007). Six Dynasties Civilization. Yale University Press. p. 362. ISBN 978-0300074048.
  4. ^ Bret Hinsch (2011). The ultimate guide to Chinese tea.
  5. ^ Nicola Salter (2013). Hot Water for Tea: An inspired collection of tea remedies and aromatic elixirs for your mind and body, beauty and soul. ArchwayPublishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1606932476.
  6. ^ Peter T. Daniels, ed. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. p. 203. ISBN 978-0195079937.
  7. ^ "「茶」的字形與音韻變遷(提要)". Archived from the original on 2010-09-29.
  8. ^ Keekok Lee (2008). Warp and Weft, Chinese Language and Culture. Eloquent Books. p. 97. ISBN 978-1606932476.
  9. ^ "Why we call tea "cha" and "te"?", Hong Kong Museum of Tea Ware, archived from the original on 2018-01-16, retrieved 2014-08-25
  10. ^ Dahl, Östen. "Feature/Chapter 138: Tea". The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Digital Library. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  11. ^ a b Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado, Anthony Xavier Soares (June 1988). Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages: From the Portuguese Original of Monsignor Sebastiao Rodolfo Dalgado, Volume 1. South Asia Books. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-8120604131.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  12. ^ Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. p. 263. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  13. ^ "Chai". American Heritage Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2014-02-18. Chai: A beverage made from spiced black tea, honey, and milk. ETYMOLOGY: Ultimately from Chinese (Mandarin) chá.
  14. ^ a b "tea". Online Etymology Dictionary. The Portuguese word (attested from 1550s) came via Macao; and Rus. chai, Pers. cha, Gk. tsai, Arabic shay, and Turk. çay all came overland from the Mandarin form.
  15. ^ "char". Oxford English Dictionary.
  16. ^ "tea". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  17. ^ "chai". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  18. ^ a b c Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. p. 262. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  19. ^ Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh (2009). The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson. pp. 265–267. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
  20. ^ a b c d "Tea". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 29 June 2012.
  21. ^ Chrystal, Paul. Tea: A Very British Beverage. ISBN 9781445633602.