The Language of Tea.

Katie Butler Gao, a PhD student in linguistics, is working on an interesting project:

The Language of Tea (2015, work in progress)

The word for “tea” in the majority of the world’s languages comes from a borrowing of either the Northern Chinese word cha or the Southern Chinese word te (e.g. the Hindi word chai and the English word tea). The widespread borrowing of the word for ‘tea’ is linguistically fascinating because it is directly related to contact that occurred through major land and sea trade routes since the 15th century.

Inspired by the WALS chapter on tea and Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food (2014), this map is a project that grew out of a 2014 Map Design and Production course, taught by Everett Wingert in the UH Mānoa Geography Department.

The map (above) was originally designed as a wall map, but I hope to develop this into a digital interactive map more readily accessible online. I am in the process of converting the language names and words for tea into a spreadsheet with longitude and latitude points. I currently have around 300 languages (for aesthetic reasons), but would like to add more to a digital version!

If you would like to contribute information on your language or one you know about, shoot me an email at with this information: language name, location of language (long/lat point would be great), word for ‘tea’ in Romanized script and local script, variations of the word for Camellia sinensis or words for other local kinds of tea (i.e. leaves/herbs steeped in water to make a beverage).

Here‘s a direct link to the map; I wrote about Jurafsky’s blog The Language of Food, and his post Tea if by Sea, here. Thanks, Yoram!


  1. gwenllian says:

    Where have all the Slovenians and Macedonians gone?

  2. I would recommend, wherever it is known, to add a date of borrowing.

  3. Gwenllian: Gone to flowers every one!

  4. Ariadne says:

    What’s the deal with modern Greek then? In the puristic καθαρεύουσα the beverage is called «τέιον» (hence compound words like τεϊοποτείο and τεϊόδεντρο, or the related word τεΐνη), but in everyday speech it’s called «τσάι» (served significantly from a «τσαγέρα»). Does that mean we’ve got two words for it, one coming from te and the other from cha? It seems to me this could actually be the case.

  5. British English has the colloquial word ‘char’ (‘I could murder a cup of char’) as well as ‘tea’, so we swing both ways.

  6. Bathrobe says:

    Wikipedia has a very good summing up of the etymology of words for ‘tea’, quite likely plagiarised but good nonetheless. (Slightly marred by the typical Chinese confusion of ‘etymology’ and ‘character etymology’.)

  7. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    ‘char’ = ‘chah’ for speakers of rhotic English?

  8. Yup.

  9. Jim (another one) says:

    “British English has the colloquial word ‘char’ (‘I could murder a cup of char’) as well as ‘tea’, so we swing both ways.”

    Right now I could murder a plate of char.

  10. Tangentially, I have the impression that Brits are more likely to use blood-soaked idioms like “I could murder [some food or drink]” or “People who [do some annoying thing] should be shot” – perhaps correlating with their lower rates of gun violence and homicide.

  11. Well, in the Southern cone of S America, yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis), is the “tea” of choice.

  12. @Stephen C. Carlson: ‘char’ = ‘chah’ for speakers of rhotic English?

    From the point of view of a non-rhotic speaker, that’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t think any non-rhotic speaker would ever correct you (or even notice) if you pronounced it with an “r” at the end.

  13. J Carlos Deegan, I know you didn’t invent the term, but what makes it a cone rather than a triangle? It doesn’t seem very cone-like.

  14. Digging about in the OED, I find that in heraldry, when a shield is divided by lines radiating from the center, each division is known as a cone, and this is the oldest use of the word in English. All the other senses denote three-dimensional objects, from pine cones (the original meaning of Greek κῶνος) to volcanic cones. So perhaps the Southern Cone (Cono Sur in Spanish) reflects this older heraldic sense, the radiating lines being the east and west coasts of South America.

  15. That reminds me, I was engaged in an online discussion some years ago about “southern pointiness” – the observation that the Earth’s major landmasses, in their current configuration, seem to have a tendency to taper as they go south. Examples being South America, North and Central America, Greenland, Africa, India, the Indochinese Peninsula, and Australia with its southern capes. I forget what we decided the reason was.

  16. Well, it’s the same pinciple as with icicles – the landmasses drip downwards. 😉

  17. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @J Carlos Deegan: mate may be the beverage of choice, but in my Rioplatense dialect it’s never tea.

    The stuff itself is yerba, the infusion drunk from the traditional gourd mate, and the less intense infusion prepared in a tea-like manner mate cocido.

    may be used of most herbal infusions (e.g., té de manzanilla, té de menta), but not of mate. (That is, in my variety of Spanish; rules change in the Reaches and all that.)

  18. I agree (having lived in BA for some years), but I don’t think J Carlos Deegan was saying it’s called “tea,” just that it’s the (or a) tea equivalent. I could be wrong.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    perhaps correlating with their lower rates of gun violence and homicide.

    Those were a lot higher before guns were practically outlawed.

  20. In Korean, the Sino-Korean character for tea, 茶, interestingly, has two pronunciations, 다 ta and 차 ch’a [in McCune-Reischauer Romanization]

  21. The Turkish word for tea is cay, pronounced chai. I guess that means the Turks learned about tea from the Indians.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Cay or çay?

  23. The latter (you lazy bum).

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Thought so. And it’s 2:11 at night, so of course I’m lazy 🙂

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