Friday, April 3, 2020

The name of tea

One of the strongest indicators of the continuing influence of the historical ‘great roads’ of the mediæval world system, is actually in the very name for ‘tea’. Linguistically-speaking, the name a country adopted for tea generally depended on the great-road trade route on which it first encountered the beverage. In almost every European language the word for ‘tea’ is descended from the Chinese word 茶. However, depending on whether they got it over the maritime route, or over one of the land routes, the pronunciation of the word for ‘tea’ would vary. (Thus, even the name of this blog has a particular ‘orientation’, so to speak. The choice of Chai over Tea was deliberate, and is meant to give voice to an anti-colonialist position as well as the Eurasianist political preferences of the blogger.)

In general (though there are a couple of notable exceptions), the cultures which traded tea along the maritime route, took the mediæval Fujianese (or Min Nan) pronunciation of the word, which was . This is because Fujian was historically the easternmost terminus of the maritime route. As a result, in the Dravidian languages of South India, the word for tea looks quite familiar: for example, in Telugu the word for tea is ṭī టీ, in Sinhala the word for tea is තේ, as it also is in the Tamil compounds tēnīr தேநீர் ‘brewed tea’ and tēyilai தேயிலை ‘tea leaves’. In standard Indonesian, Malay and Javanese the word for tea is teh. In Khmer it is te តែ. And in Malagasy, spoken on Madagascar, the word is dite.

When the colonising Dutch managed to break in on the tea trade in the Indian Ocean in the 1600s, largely based out of their ‘fortified ports’ in Indonesia, they also took on the local name for tea, which was transliterated into Dutch as thee. The Dutch name caught on throughout Western Europe as they were the main suppliers of goods from the Indian Ocean throughout the century. Hence, French thé, German Tee, Spanish , Danish te and English tea. The notable major exception is the Portuguese chá, because the colonising Portuguese got their tea from the Cantonese-speaking port of Macau, where the local word for tea is caa4.

If, on the other hand, the major route of trade was over one of the two land-based routes, the etymology of the word for tea is then based in the Mandarin chá. Thus, for example, in Mongolian the word for tea is tsaj цай; in Farsi čây چای, in Arabic šây شَاي‎, in Kazakh shaı шай and in Russian chai чай. There is a pretty clear dividing line within Europe itself depending on whether they first got their tea from the Dutch over the sea route, or from the Russians and the Turks over the land route. In the South Slavic lands they used a cognate of chá while in Italy they use a derivative of . In Austria and Germany a cognate of is used, while Czechia and Slovakia use a cognate of chá. Hungarian has a cognate of while Romanian has a cognate of chá. The /chá divide even separates Finland from Karelia and the western Sámi from the eastern Sámi.

There thus seems to be a loose, not perfect and by no means altogether deterministic, distinction in gæopolitical orientation between language groups and chá language groups – that runs parallel to the thalassocratic vs. tellurocratic orientation of the historical trade behaviour of these groups. Certainly worth considering.

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