Time for Tea

(Our guest blogger this week is Kate Lindsey, our linguist-in-residence and friendly barista.  You can keep up with her globe-trotting adventures on her blog.)
Sure, we have fantastic espresso, delicious cold-brewed coffee and the best lattes and cappuccinos in town, but what about when you need a soothing chamomile and lavender infusion to take the edge off the day, or a shay bina'ina' whose minty fragrance holds visions of the Moroccan sahara, or our famous home-made ginger-infused chai to wake you back up? We like to take care of our tea-lovers too - which is why we get our large selection of teas, shay and chai from Serendipitea - high quality organic loose leaf teas.

I was chatting with some fellow tea-lovers the other day and we were talking about all the different words for tea. Tea, thé, tee, te, chai, shai, cha. What is most surprising however, is not their differences, but actually their similarities! The tea plant grows in a vast area that stretches from Assam (India) in the west to the east coast of China and southwards into Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Using the leaves of tea as a beverage is said to have originated in China. Most words for tea found among the world's languages, thus, come from Chinese origin.

Even in China, however, there are slight differences among the different linguistic communities. The Chinese character for tea is, and is pronounced cha in Mandarin. However in Min Nan chinese, they pronounce it tê. The Dutch East India Trading Company, which was the main importer of tea into Europe, had connections in the south of China in Fujian where Min Nan was spoken. Thus, the word they adopted for tea was thee, which spread (along with the tea leaves) all throughout Europe and former Dutch colonies. Communities that traded with China through different ports like Potrugal (chá) who traded through Macao (Cantonese: cha), or Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East who traded overland tend to use forms such as chai.

Below is a map from The World Atlas of Language Structures showing how the languages are divided. While only 230 (of nearly 6000) languages are included in this preliminary survey, it is interesting to see how many words are derived from cha (109), how many from te (81) and how many from other origins (only 40). Click here to interact with the map.


For all you coffee drinkers who I may have lost along the way - here are some fun facts about the origins of the words for latte!

 In Italian latte means milk. What in English-speaking countries is now called a latte is shorthand for "caffelatte" or "caffellatte" ("caffè e latte"). The Italian form means "coffee and milk", similar to the French café au lait, the Spanish café con leche and the Portuguese café com leite

Ordering a "latte" in Italy will get you a glass of hot or cold milk.

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