“Tea” as a word of the English language has enjoyed about four hundred years of use. It’s changed in that time, like most words in the English language; it wasn’t always pronounced “tee”. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Sinitic “Cha” Derivative
Min Nan Chinese “Te” Derivative
Other Derivative
Figure Source

As most people know (or have at least noticed), many of Asia’s countries derive their word of tea from “cha” (Japan and China’s “cha” and “ch’a”, India’s and Russia’s “chai”, Turkey’s “çay”). Overall, there isn’t much variation between languages for the word “tea”. Just a distinct divide between two words: Cha (and its variants), and Tea (and its variants). Whereas “cha” derives from Mandarin Chinese, the word “tea” derives from the language Malay, “tah”, which itself comes directly from the Amoy (Min nan) dialect of Chinese (wherein it’s pronounced “t’e”)–as opposed to the Mandarin dialect’s “ch’a”. Whereas most of Asia uses a derivative of “ch’a/cha”, much of Europe uses a derivative of “tah/t’eh”.

These are the two root words for tea; the variations, you’ll find, are caused by the way these two words worked their way across the continent. They are quite intimately tied to the two Tea Roads.

From here it’s fairly easy to piece together the routes they took–“cha” traveled the Northern Route, beginning at the gates of Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou), traversing north through Mongolia, into Siberia, and ending in Moscow, Russia. Thus we find much of Asia adopted, or have used from the very beginning, various versions of “ch’a”; “chai”, and “çay”.

“T’e”, on the other hand, traveled the Southern Tea Road, which brought it right to the coast; from here, it was transported to western Europe by the early sea-faring Dutch. Today we find that much of Europe uses the root “t’e”; “tay”, rather, such as France’s “thé”, Spain’s “té”, Italy’s “te”. The only outliers in this case are the Portuguese, who call it cha (almost “shah”); their relationship with the tea trade merely predates China’s southern coastal trade with the Dutch.

Returning to my opening line of this post, when I type “t’e”, I mean it to be pronounced “tay”, with the t aspirated with a burst of air. However, today we find most people pronounce “tea” as… well, “tea”. “Tee”. A quick look through our own literative past shows that this was not the case until some time after the 1800s. Avery, here, includes an example taken from English poet Alexander Pope, with this rhyming quadruplet:

Soft yielding mind to water glide away
And sip, with Nymphs their elemental Tea.
Hear thou, great Annal(sic)* whom three realms obey
Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes tea.

*Avery’s quote of the poem reads “Hear though, great Annal whom three realms obey”, however other sources list it as: “Hear though, great Anna! Whom three realms obey”. On top of this, she makes the very confusing choice to quote two separate poems together (though she lists them as “rhyming couplets”), as if they are one. These four lines could easily be interpreted as an ABAB sequence, allowing “tea” to rhyme with itself, and eluding nothing to its proper pronunciation.

To clear this up and add context, I am providing additional quotes; the first two lines in fact belong to Canto I, which has the rhyming sequence AABBCCDD…etc, with the last three couplets being:

Soft yielding minds to Water glide away, 
And sip, with Nymphs, their elemental Tea. 
The graver Prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
In search of mischief still on Earth to roam.
The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,
And sport and flutter in the fields of Air.

So Avery is right, although this certainly gives a clearer context of the word.

The second two lines come from Canto III, which also has the scheme of AABBCCDD:

Close by those meads, for ever crown’d with flow’rs,
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising tow’rs,
There stands a structure of majestic frame,
Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its name.
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign Tyrants and of Nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey. 
Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes Tea.

I hope this will clear any confusion, especially to those who may have picked up the book as a result of my previous posts on it. Both quotes are taken from Project Gutenburg, which has on-file The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, by Alexander Pope, to be found here.

As Avery puts it, “the derivation of words is a fascinating study: it is one way to track the passage of cultural communications”. Much of this post derives from her book, although there are many other sources that detail the history of the word “tea”; another great resource to check out would be The World Atlas of Language Structures, specifically chapter 138 (there is also an article on it here). As a last note, Google has most, if not all of Martha Avery’s The Tea Road online, here.

  • Much of this post comes from Martha Avery’s “The Tea Road: China and Russia Meet Across the Steppe”, and credit is thus given; additional information is credited to Wikipedia, Project Gutenburg, and The World Atlas of Language Structures.