The Origin and History of Tea Names, Spelling, and Pronunciation

During the height of China’s tea trade with Europe, the European
tea buying representatives had the difficult task of trying to communicate
with the Chinese tea merchants.  During that time China only produced
green and black teas, with green for their own consumption and black for
Eventually, though, green
tea was also exported and
to identify the different vari-
eties of tea, the Westerners used corrupt trans-
literations of either the Chinese names for the tea
or the places they were grown.
An example is the term bohea which was used to
describe the dark, big leaf teas from Wuyi Shan.
Other examples are Singlo

green tea, a corruption
of the Songluo Mountains where it’s grown.  Hyson
refers to tea picked in early spring, which is xichuan
in Chinese.  Also gunpowder tea was named by
sea captains for its resemblance to the small pell-
ets of grey-green gunpowder (called zucha or pearl
tea in Chinese).

naming of teas eventually became more exact,

referring to specific teas or replaced with names that identified a specific origin or classification.

In the mid 1600s there were two main areas that Chinese tea was
shipped from and it was the local dialects of these two locations that
determined the spelling and pronunciation for the words used to
transliterate the Chinese character for tea.  But there are several
ways to pronounce it depending where in the world you are.

The history of the words used for tea in different areas of the world
can be traced back to one of two places, that being either the Chinese
port of Amoy (now called Xiamen), or the southern China port of Canton
(now called Guangzhou).

The character for tea is pronounced and spelled similar to te in the Min Nan dialect (also referred
to as the Amoy dialect), that is spoken around Xiamen.

The character is pronounced cha or ch’a in both the Cantonese dialect spoken
by China’s southern coastal population and the Mandarin dialect spoken by
the northern Chinese.

China’s early tea trade with the West was established by the Dutch, Portu-
gese, and later the English and the pronunciation of either cha or te was
used following the historical trade routes that were established by these
early merchant explorers during the late 17th century.  But for reasons that
are unclear to linguists, the pronunciation of 
te and cha didn’t follow through
after the mid-18th century.

The following are the two pronunciation branches and the variations used worldwide (the various
accents used are not listed):

te – Catalan, Danish, Hebrew, Italian, Latvian, Malay, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish
tee – Africans, Finnish, Korean, German
tea – English, Hungarian
the – French, Icelandic, Indonesian, Tamil
thee – Dutch
cha – Greek, Hindu, Persian, Portugese, 
chai – Russian
chay (caj) – Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croation, Czech, Serbian, Turkish