A Map of How the Word “Tea” Spread Across the World

When I order a cup of tea in Korea, where I live, I ask for cha (차); when trav­el­ing in Japan, I ask for the hon­orif­ic-affixed ocha (お茶). In Span­ish-speak­ing places I order , which I try to pro­nounce as dis­tinct­ly as pos­si­ble from the thé I order in French-speak­ing ones. And on my trips back to Unit­ed States, where I’m from, I just ask for tea. Not that tea, despite its awe-inspir­ing ven­er­a­bil­i­ty, has ever quite matched the pop­u­lar­i­ty of cof­fee in Amer­i­ca, but you can still find it most every­where you go. And for decades now, no less an Amer­i­can cor­po­rate cof­fee jug­ger­naut than Star­bucks has labeled cer­tain of its teas chai, which has pop­u­lar­ized that alter­na­tive term but also cre­at­ed a degree of pub­lic con­fu­sion: what’s the dif­fer­ence, if any, between chai and tea?

Both words refer, ulti­mate­ly, to the same bev­er­age invent­ed in Chi­na more than three mil­len­nia ago. Tea may now be drunk all over the world, but peo­ple in dif­fer­ent places pre­fer dif­fer­ent kinds: fla­vors vary from region to region with­in Chi­na, and Chi­nese teas taste dif­fer­ent from, say, Indi­an teas. Star­bucks pre­sum­ably brands its Indi­an-style tea with the word chai because it sounds like the words used to refer to tea in India.

It also sounds like the words used to refer to tea in Far­si, Turk­ish, and even Russ­ian, all of them sim­i­lar to chay. But oth­er coun­tries’ words for tea sound dif­fer­ent: the May­lay teh, the Finnish tee, the Dutch thee. “The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road,” writes Quartz’s Nikhil Son­nad. “The ‘tea’-like phras­ings spread over water, by Dutch traders bring­ing the nov­el leaves back to Europe.”

“The term cha (茶) is ‘Sinitic,’ mean­ing it is com­mon to many vari­eties of Chi­nese,” writes Son­nad. “It began in Chi­na and made its way through cen­tral Asia, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing ‘chay’ (چای) in Per­sian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, accord­ing to a recent dis­cov­ery, tea was trad­ed over 2,000 years ago.” The te form “used in coastal-Chi­nese lan­guages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the pri­ma­ry traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th cen­tu­ry, as explained in the World Atlas of Lan­guage Struc­tures. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Tai­wan, both places where peo­ple used the te pro­nun­ci­a­tion. The Dutch East India Company’s expan­sive tea impor­ta­tion into Europe gave us the French thé, the Ger­man Tee, and the Eng­lish tea.”

And we must­n’t leave out the Por­tuguese, who in the 1500s “trav­elled to the Far East hop­ing to gain a monop­oly on the spice trade,” as Cul­ture Trip’s Rachel Dea­son writes, but “decid­ed to focus on export­ing tea instead. The Por­tuguese called the drink cha, just like the peo­ple of south­ern Chi­na did,” and under that name shipped its leaves “down through Indone­sia, under the south­ern tip of Africa, and back up to west­ern Europe.” You can see the glob­al spread of tea, tee, thé, chai, chay, cha, or what­ev­er you call it in the map above, recent­ly tweet­ed out by East Asia his­to­ri­an Nick Kapur. (You may remem­ber the fan­tas­ti­cal Japan­ese his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca he sent into cir­cu­la­tion last year.) Study it care­ful­ly, and you’ll be able to order tea in the lands of both te and cha. But should you find your­self in Bur­ma, it won’t help you: just remem­ber that the word there is lakphak.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Tea

1934 Map Resizes the World to Show Which Coun­try Drinks the Most Tea

10 Gold­en Rules for Mak­ing the Per­fect Cup of Tea (1941)

George Orwell’s Rules for Mak­ing the Per­fect Cup of Tea: A Short Ani­ma­tion

Epic Tea Time with Alan Rick­man

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (7)
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  • Paulo Colaço says:

    The his­to­ry you men­tion would­n’t exist, at least not as it is, with­out the por­tuguese con­tribuition, which brought tea from the far east (as you men­tion, but only in the end), and spread it in west, first­ly intro­duc­ing it in Eng­land, where the 5pm tea tra­di­tion appeared because a por­tuguese princess always took it at that time and, being in Eng­land, the hab­bit remained there in the eng­lish court.
    Also por­tuguese call tea chá, like the east­erns, some­thing you also men­tion only in the end, but one can’t see in the info­graph­ic.
    Just want­ed to clear this out, because one could think tea came to west “with the wind”, when in fact, this jour­ney has a his­to­ry.
    P.S. I know this is based on anoth­er arti­cle, but I think in this web­site things should be more in depth.
    Paulo Colaço, por­tuguese chá lover.

  • Daniel says:

    It’s fun­ny that many places in this map show the pres­ence of vari­a­tions of “chá”, but not who were the nav­i­ga­tors who car­ried this word around: the Por­tuguese

  • Terry Walsh says:

    The Span­ish, French, Ger­man and Eng­lish words are all (or in the case of Eng­lish, used to be) pro­nounced in the same way, i.e. tay. This pro­nun­ci­a­tion is still ‘live’ in many dialects of Eng­lish.

    Here’s a cou­plet from Pope’s mock-epic, ‘The Rape of the Lock’ ((III.7–8)), which shows you how the word was pro­nounced in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry:

    Here Thou, Great Anna, Whom three Realms obey,
    Dost some­times Coun­sel take—and some­times Tea.

  • Raquel says:

    This arti­cle (it is writ­ten in Por­tuguese) states that TEA stands for Trans­porte de Ervas Aromáti­cas ( Aro­mat­ic Herbs Trans­port). The let­ters TEA were writ­ten in the box­es shipped to Eng­land dur­ing Por­tu­gal’s long and awful colo­nial activ­i­ty. The por­tuguese word is “chá”.

  • A bedford says:

    Your under­stand­ing of the use chai in Star­bucks is incor­rect. It’s not just brand­ing, it was used well before Star­bucks start­ed sell­ing it and is in fact then name of a par­tic­u­lar tea bev­er­age, although you are cor­rect in star­ing that it’s ori­gins are in india. In India they char­ac­ter­is­ticly make their tea by boil­ing black tea for a while along with a spice mix includ­ing cin­na­mon and mace, some­times black pep­per etc, it’s milky and also very sweet­ened. It’s like a warm Christ­mas-spices sweet bev­er­age with tea under­tones. Chai in a west­ern Eng­lish speak­ing sit­u­a­tion means this kind of tea only, to the extent that many times I’ve seen it referred to as ’ chai tea’ despite that trans­lat­ing as ’ tea tea ‘. It might have been that if both cul­tures used a sim­i­lar word for tea it might be called ‘Indi­an tea’ to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, but for most peo­ple ‘chai’ has suff­ised. It might be like order­ing an Amer­i­cano and know­ing that refers to.a.particular way of serv­ing cof­fee. I don’t know why this irked me enough to both­er com­ment­ing, I sup­pose because it was hip­pies, trav­ellers and free thinkers who were drink­ing chai tea well before Star­bucks got their claws in with their syrupy fake tea that is noth­ing like the intend­ed thing, and to call it brand­ing is so incor­rect and is as sil­ly as to imag­ine that a cap­puc­ci­no refers to all types of cof­fee.

  • Hugo Pinto says:

    As men­tioned before in the com­ments, the arti­cle is fac­tu­al­ly wrong: more than two cen­turies before the Dutch East India com­pa­ny, the Por­tuguese were trad­ing tea — that they called then, as we still do now, “chá” — from the Far East to Europe (togeth­er with valu­able spices).

    There is a wide­spread sto­ry how the “T” (ini­tial from the word tchai) the Por­tuguese paint­ed the box­es con­tain­ing tea would even­tu­al­ly become syn­onym with the bev­er­age in all of the West­ern Euro­pean lan­guages EXCEPT Por­tuguese.

    And there is also the appar­ent­ly truth­ful sto­ry on how tea (along with mar­malade and tobac­co) was intro­duced in the Eng­lish roy­al envi­ron­ment by a Por­tuguese con­sort, Cata­ri­na, who would mar­ry Charles II.

    None of this appears in the mis­lead­ing arti­cle… Back to the library for the author.

  • Pedro says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, your infor­ma­tion is biased, wrong and ill-inten­tioned based on igno­rance.

    The arti­cle is full of
    Just because you read some­thing in an arti­cle does­n’t mean it’s right.

    That TEA word is relat­ed to that because it was the ini­tials on one of Queen’s Cather­ine chests that she brought to Eng­land to be mar­ried to Charles II.

    In Por­tuguese, tea (the drink) is called chá. The Por­tuguese intro­duced tea into the West­ern world, name­ly to the Ul and oth­er coun­tries through their world com­merce from Chi­na, in Macao, Por­tuguese ter­ri­to­ry giv­en to them by the Emper­or of Chi­na in the mid-1500s, being the Por­tuguese the first West­ern­ers to arrive in Asia.

    The Por­tuguese Empire was an empire of its time, and you can’t take it out of this frame. If you do so, you must judge all world his­to­ry empires by the same pris­ma. The Por­tuguese empire gave extra­or­di­nary knowl­edge, cul­ture, advance­ment in sci­ence, and the Japan­ese Renais­sance, among many oth­er facts that can be found in reli­able sources.

    It was, for instance, due to the Por­tuguese Queen, Cather­ine of Bra­gan­za, that the British advanced and expand­ed as pow­er­ful­ly as they did then. In her dowry, she brought to the British crown, among mon­e­tary reach­es and geo­graph­i­cal offer­ings — Bom­bay and oth­ers — the right to free trade with all the Por­tuguese ter­ri­to­ries. It per­mit­ted the British Empire to expand, as was the case in India.

    It is true that in those times, what today is con­sid­ered unac­cept­able it was not. As it was in the time of the Romans, the Egyp­tians, the Mon­gols, the Chi­nese, the Ottomans, and the Babilons, to name a few…

    I hope this will help enlight­en you and awak­en your curios­i­ty to look fur­ther with an open mind and acute intel­li­gence.

    This adds to what oth­ers have writ­ten here to cor­rect this fake news and mis­in­for­ma­tion…

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