On today’s episode, we will look at the history of word tea. With few exceptions, there are only two words for tea around the world. How did this happen? How is it connected to globalisation and colonialism?

(If you can’t see the podcast player click here to listen!)

Vocabulary List

beverage (n) – a drink of any type.

Hot beverages include tea, coffee, and hot chocolate

puzzling (adj) – difficult to explain or understand

Interstellar is a rather puzzling film

Colonialism (n) – control by one country over another and its economy, or support for such control

The impact of colonialism is still felt throughout Africa

Globalisation (n) – the development of closer economic, cultural, and political relations among all the countries of the world as a result of travel and communication becoming easy

Optimists say globalisation means more cultural choices for everyone

Dialect (n) – a form of language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar

The poem is written in a northern dialect

Coastal (adj) – positioned on, or relating to the coast

In the UK, coastal towns are very busy in summer

Approximately (adv) – close to a particular number or time although not exactly that number or time

The job will take approximately three weeks, and cost approximately £1,000


With the exception of water, tea is the most popular drink in the entire world. It is more popular than coffee, more popular than milk, more popular than soda. In fact, data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that the world drinks about six billion cups of tea a day. I, myself, probably drink at least 4 cups a day, while the rest of my family drinks even more. As a child, whenever I visited my grandma I was always amazed how much tea she drank – at least 10 cups a day. Tea is the national drink of both China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, as well as my country, the UK. Moreover, it has been estimated that we have been drinking tea for almost 5000 years. 

So, considering the incredibly long history of tea, and the massive diversity of places the beverage is drunk, it is puzzling that there are only two words for tea. That might shock you, but think about it. With few exceptions, the world has only two words for tea. One is like the English tea. I won’t try to pronounce all of the different variants, but in French, Spanish, and even Afrikaans, the word is very close to tea.. The other one is some variations of cha found all across Asia. In Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Arabaic, Hindi, Turkish, Russia, and even East African languages like Swahili, it is cha. In Indonesian, Sri Lankan languages, Afrikaans, west African languages, Italian, Dutch, and other European languages it is tea. But why? How can such a popular and ancient product only have two names. 

The reason is connected to the history of colonialism, globalisation, and the early years of international trade. The origins of both words can be found in China, and in Chinese languages. Tea has been drunk in China for thousands of years, and has become an incredibly important part of their culture. The term cha is found in many different varieties and dialects of China. As CHina traded with its neighbours, the word cha began to spread. The silk road is the name we give to the ancient trade route connecting East to West, China to the Middle East and Europe. As China’s national drink was taken across land to be traded in India, Persia, Central Asia, and further afield, the name was also taken. Over the last 2000 years, the word cha has spread by land, from country to country and language to language. 

The word Tea, like the cha, also has roots in China. Although the word tea is written the same in all the languages of China, it is pronounced differently in some. Most notably in the Min Nan dialect, a language spoken in the coastal fujian region of China as well as in Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities, the word is pronounced like tea. But how did this word spread around the world to reach West Africa and Europe? This is the part of the story involving colonialism. The tea-like word used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe through the Dutch, who became the main traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, and, as i already mentioned, these two places did not say cha but instead said tea. It was Dutch trade, then, from their colonial bases in Coastal China and Taiwan, that spread the word South to Indonesia and Malaysia, across to Sri Lanka, and then through to West Africa and Europe. 

If your country first got tea by land, you probably say cha or something similar. If your country first received tea by sea, you probably say tea or something similar. Of course there are exceptions to this. Japan, for instance, is an Island so must have received tea by sea, but says cha. The key here is that Japan had tea long before the Dutch arrived in Asia. Other places which have different words for tea, such as Burma or Myanmar, normally grow tea naturally. Maybe the most interesting example is Portugal. Portugal is one of the few western European countries to not say tea. Instead they say cha. Why? Well, the Dutch were not the first Europeans to trade directly with Asia. The Portuguese beat them there, colonising Taiwan and trading through the port of Macao. However, in Macao they say cha, so this is the term that became used in Portuguese. 

Final Thought

Language is such an interesting thing to study. Not only does it allow us to communicate with each other, but it also changes the way that we think and provides clues about our history. We think of the current world today as being especially global and international; people moving around the world, trade between countries growing every year. Language, however, shows us that our world has always been international. We have always traded, mixed, and shared aspects of our cultures. Tea and cha is a great example. There are only two words around the entire world for such a widely used product. This is incredible when you think about how large our vocabularies have become. British English and American English cannot even agree on whether to say sidewalk or pavement, cellphone or mobile phone, trousers or pants. But most of the world agrees on the word for Tea. 

What other words in your languages are foreign or borrowed, and where do they come from? Approximately 60% of English vocabulary is borrowed from Latin languages like French. How about your language? How well do you know this history of your vocabulary?


Q. What is the name of the ancient trade route between China and the Middle East?

A.The Silk Road

Q. What country spread the word tea around the world?

A.The Netherlands (Dutch people)

Q.Where did Portugal trade from in Asia?

A. Macao

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

4 thoughts on “11. “Tea” over sea and “cha” over land: the history of tea, colonialism, and globalisation!”
  1. Thank you very much for creating this lesson to improve our English. I really like how you explain everything! Not only that, but I also learn new things related to culture, politics and other interesting topics! If you don’t mind, I would try to make some sentences so I put into practice some of the vocabulary you taught me

    beverage (n) – a drink of any type.

    The hotels offers a wide range of beverages! It runs the gamut from hot drinks to alcoholic drinks

    puzzling (adj) – difficult to explain or understand

    I don’t understand this mathematical equation. It is so puzzling!

    Colonialism (n) – control by one country over another and its economy, or support for such control

    Dialect (n) – a form of language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar

    This book is narrated in an Irish dialect

    Coastal (adj) – positioned on, or relating to the coast

    The beach has some coastal areas you can go
    Approximately (adv) – close to a particular number or time although not exactly that number or time

    It will take approximately one year to release a vaccine for COVID 19

    Thank you again for teaching me so many things 😊

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment! Writing sentences is a really great way to practice your vocabulary, and most of the ones you created are perfect. My only correction is with “coastal” – because the beach is near to the sea, the whole beach is coastal (not just some areas). Keep up the good work! And feel free to message and leave comments at anytime.

  2. in Polish there is a bit different word for tea – herbata. it comes from combining two words: Latin herba means herbs and thea – latinised kind of Chinese plant thea (ta)

  3. Hi Tom. I’m from Argentina. I appreciate what you do. Your podcasts and blog really help me to practice. I’d recommend hiding the answers at the end of the post or maybe put them in a toggle details. Thank you again and sorry If I write something grammatically incorrect.

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