Chai, chai, cha
What’s the word for onion in Hungarian? How do you say spicy in Vietnamese? When you’re ordering at a restaurant in a place where you don’t speak the language and no one speaks yours, you fumble around in a phrasebook or on your phone to find the right word.
When it comes to coffee or tea, though, there’s hardly any need. All around the planet, there are basically only two words for tea. And for coffee, there’s really only one. Why is that?
The thought first occurred to me as I was in line at a coffee chain in California and someone was ordering “chai,” to specify a spicy concoction that involves tea, but is somehow different. This struck me as weird, as in much of the world, “chai” just means tea.
Turkish: “chai.” Russian: “chai.” Swahili: “chai.” Spellings and alphabets aside, the sound of tea is almost identical from Tokyo to Trieste, Moscow to Mogadishu. Romanian, Slovenian, Albanian, Czech, Bulgarian, Croatian, Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Ukrainian? “Chai.” A few slight variants pop up here and there outside of Eastern Europe — Bengali: “cha”, Japanese: “ocha”, Mongolian: “tsa”, Somali: “sha”, for example.
Virtually everywhere else, it’s tea. In the Germanic languages of Northern Europe it sounds like “tee” and in the Romance languages in Southern and Western Europe it’s more like “tay.” English and Western European trade and colonization probably has a lot to do with the fact that everyone from the Maoris in New Zealand to the Igbo in Nigeria call it “tea,” and in various other African languages there is at least a “tee” sound somewhere in the word.
(The only European anomaly is Poland and Lithuania, where it is called herbata. Being wedged between the historic empires of Germany and Russia was hard enough work, never mind having to constantly cater to the “tee” drinking armies from the West and the “chai” drinkers from the East. Maybe they just decided to come up with their own word and stick with it.)
In India, where much of the world’s tea is grown, different dialects have it as either “chai” or “ti,’ while in China, the birthplace of the stuff, where hundreds of different kinds exist, it has a number of names.
With coffee, the name remains the same.
The first account of coffee comes from the Middle East. The beans are thought to be indigenous to Ethiopia, and the brewing technique first documented in Yemen in the 10th century. The modern Arabic name sounds roughly like “ka-u-we.”
As the Arabs and Ottomans spread throughout North Africa, Southern Europe and the Asian subcontinent, bringing their grounds with them, the brew eventually made it to Malta and Southern Italy in the 1500s, where the locals heard the word as “caffe.” By the 1600s it was popular throughout Europe, sounding more like “coffee” as it traveled north, and soon it made its way around the oceans on ships.
Whether pronounced in the French way, café, or the Dutch koffie, you can order it in your native tongue just about anywhere in the world, and you’ll be rewarded with a local cup of joe.
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