We Translate On Time

What's the tea?

July 2nd, 2019

Bar a few exceptions, if you are asking for tea anywhere in the world, you will be using a word resembling 'tea', or a word resembling 'cha'. Throughout most of Western Europe and West Africa, words similar to 'tea' are used: 'té' (Spanish), 'tee' (Africaans), or 'thé' (French). On the other hand words similar to 'cha' tend to be used in East Africa and through a large part of Asia, such as 'chai' (Swahili) and 'cha' (Korean). An obvious exception to this is Portuguese, which uses the word 'chá'. Although on first glance this seems to be a strange anomaly, after all, Portuguese is one of the only romance language to use the 'cha' variant, on closer inspection of how the two teas appeared we can understand better how this came to be. 

The routes that tea took from Asia to the rest of the world impacted the word that would come to be used in each language. The tea transported by sea, such as that by Dutch traders, originally came from the province of Fujian in China, where the word 'tê' was used. This was then exported by the Dutch to most of Western Europe, hence the use of the 'tea' variant in most Romance and Germanic languages. On the other hand, the tea that travelled by land along the Silk Road came from Hong Kong and Macau, where 'chá' was used. When the Portuguese first arrived in Asia, they began using the ports of Macau and Hong Kong, hence why 'tea' in Portuguese is 'chá', despite the country being surrounded by a sea of 'tea' drinkers. 



by Nicola Spruyt