Te(a) or cha(i)?

Hello, Ivan here. I am a developer at Datawrapper, working on everything related to our visualizations. This week, lets take a look at what people around the world call a beverage known in English as tea.

Ever since I was young I’ve always loved drinking tea. When I moved from Russia to the UK in my youth (and substituted lemon in my tea with milk), I knew that the English word tea was different to Russian чай (pronounced “chai”). No big deal — just a different word in a different language for the same thing.

But while living in the UK at some point I encountered a (somewhat different) beverage called... Chai. Now I was confused 🤔. So Russia has only chai, but the UK has both tea and chai? Why is chai in the UK different from chai in Russia? Why don’t the Brits use the word chai instead of tea to refer to tea? I needed answers.

It turns out that in different languages, with a few exceptions, the word for tea originates from either te or cha. Both words have origins in China.

The word cha is “Sinitic”, which means that it’s common to many Chinese languages. The product (and the word) spread through trade across land along the Silk Road and made its way through Central Asia, eventually becoming chay in Persian.

Unlike cha, the word te comes from Min Nan Chinese, which is spoken in places like Taiwan and Fujian (a southeastern region of China). When Dutch traders started importing tea by sea in the 17th century, they primarily traded with Fujian. The Dutch traders’ adopted word for tea was thee, derived from te. This form then spread to most parts of Europe.

And what about chai as it is used in the English language? The origin for the word is clearly the original cha, but the drink is different: it originates in India and typically includes mixed spices as well as some “normal” black tea.

A big inspiration for my map comes from an article published in the Quartz, without which I probably would not have come across the original dataset. Essentially, my map is a re-imagining of the Quartz map using Datawrapper.

I used a symbol map to plot data points, each representing a different language. To enable viewers to interact with the symbols, I added tooltips; for each tooltip I also added the original word for tea (with data coming from Wiktionary and this Wikipedia article). Finally, I used some annotations to add historical context about how the two different word groups spread.

I hope you enjoyed this short story about the origins of the word for tea in different languages and how this wonderful beverage spread around the world. I had several cups while writing the article. Reach out to me at ivan@datawrapper.de if you have any questions or comments. We'll see you next week!