Carnelia Sinensis is a species of evergreen small tree characterised by ovate acuminate leaves of a shiny light green colour. Well, I know… unless you’re a real botany buff, you couldn't care less about this... On the other hand, this plant really has an interesting story. It is not only commonly used in several countries all over the globe but to analyse the names by which it is called in all the different languages of the world is equivalent to going on a long and fascinating journey. So, grab a nice cup of tea, and let's start at the beginning.

Closeup of leaves of tea plant Camellia sinensis

A brief history of tea

I think you've already guessed that the protagonist of our new post is one of the most widespread beverages in the world, the tea, and the linguistic curiosities that surround it.
The tea plant is native to Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, specifically to the borderlands between southwestern China and northern Myanmar. Human beings have been using it since time immemorial, even though, in the most remote historical phases, it was more common to chew the leaves rather than make out of it a beverage through infusion (also because to prepare an infusion, you need fire to boil the water). Tea-leaves were also used (and are still used) to prepare soups or to make delicious condiments out of them. The very Chinese ideogram used for the word tea, derived from another now defunct sign, 荼 (to be pronounced tu), which used to indicate diverse kinds of bitter medical herbs. In particular, in the Book of Odes it is mentioned as an edible vegetable.

Illustrated Edition of the Book of Odes Handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, Qing Dynasty
Illustrated Edition of the Book of Odes Handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, Qing Dynasty

Tea as we know it today, was invented in China. According to the legend, Shennong, a mythical ruler considered the inventor of agriculture, medicine, and acupuncture was sitting in the shade of a tea-tree. While boiling some water, it happened that some leaves fell down right into his cauldron. Shennong, then, decided to taste the content and recognised that the beverage obtained was invigorating.
Besides the myth, the first written attestations concerning tea as a beverage are relatively recent. The Chinese word for "tea", 茶, recurs for the very first time in a book called The Classic of Tea which was written by Lù Yǔ around the first millennium CE. It is thanks to this very author that we know the legend of Shennong and several other stories and anecdotes about tea.

Chai Tea? - Spiderman across the Spiderverse

Chai VS tea, why?

If we give a look at all words used to indicate “tea” in the diverse world language we will easily recognise a recurring pattern. In almost all cases, there are two terms for tea that are traditionally used across the globe. The first is analogous to English tea (such as thé in French, in Spanish, and tee in Afrikaans). The other is akin to the Persian term chay and the Hindi word cha. Of course, there is an explanation for this. So, let’s go to dig into it!

The Chinese ideogram for tea, , although always written with the same sign, can be pronounced in different ways, depending on the diverse regional dialects. Specifically, its current pronunciation in Mandarin is chá, while in the coastal province of Fujian, the same ideogram is pronounced te.

So, what happened? The custom of drinking tea certainly originated in China, then spread all over the world. However, the routes that this delicious drink has travelled to reach every corner of the globe have been more than one. To put it simply, the names linked to the Mandarin pronunciation, chà, travelled through the ancient Silk Road. As for the variant linked to the pronunciation typical of Fujian region, it spread all over the world via sea, mainly thanks to Dutch merchants.

Not by chance, the very few cases of language where the terms used to indicate “tea” are not linked to one of the two main Chinese pronunciations can be identified only in those regions where tea-trees grow spontaneously, such as in Burmese, where tea-leaves are called "lakphak".

Tea if by sea - cha if by land
Credits: Quartz,

Ludwig’s wrap up

Next time you sip a cup of tea, try to think how much history is hidden behind it: legendary emperors, poets, sailors, and merchants. After all, it is a bit like retracing a long journey through space and time, from the Silk Road to Dutch windmills.