Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekTea, Chai, Camellia; One Plant, Many Words

02/2019
Author Photo: Velazquez Press

Photo for article: Tea, Chai, Camellia; One Plant, Many Words

From the mountainous region of Southwest China, across the perilous oceans to the dainty tea rooms of London, and to the lazy afternoons of the South, tea has had a social and cultural impact on our lives. Whether one drinks it hot or cold, in a tea cup or mug, iced or sweet, with milk or a slice of lemon, made with loose leaves or a tea bag, there are so many ways to drink it.

Camellia sinensis, or tea, native to Southeast Asia and spread across East and South Asia, began as an ordinary plant to become one of the most cultivated in the world. Its origins begin in the Yunnan Province of China, where it is believed that people first began to eat or brew the leaves. Tea has been consumed in China for millennia; there are different accounts as to when and where did drinking tea began. Because of time and various regions, many ways of preparing it developed. From the seventh to ninth centuries of the common era, the Japanese and Koreans became acquainted with the drink through contact with China's Tang dynasty. European merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries discovered the drink while trading with China. It wasn't until the 1700s that tea began to be drunk in Europe and its colonies in the Americas.

Etymologically, tea has a fascinating history. Depending on the trading routes that brought tea back to Europe, European merchants learned two different words for the drink. In the 16th century, the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to have contact with the plant, traded for tea in Macau, where a Cantonese-speaking population called it chah. Naturally, the Portuguese called it chá. A century later, the Dutch began importing tea to Europe, but they acquired it from Amoy, now Xiamen in southern Fujian Province of China. The Dutch called the valuable leaves thee after the Hokkien word for it – teh. Hokkien is a language spoken in southern Fujian. Once tea was introduced to Europe through the Dutch, 'thee' became 'Tee' in German, 'thé' in French, 'té' in Spanish, and of course 'tea' in English. Continue reading to learn more about the history of tea…