Tsia and Cha

Before the English term “tea,” the words “tsia,” “tcha,” and “chia” were all early Western attempts to replicate cha, the Chinese pronunciation of the written character 茶 meaning  tea.[1] As the first Europeans to sail to China in 1513, the Portuguese were also the first to hear the word cha 茶 spoken in Chinese at Macao and other Asian ports of call.


Thirty years later, they landed in Japan and heard the similar name cha 茶 in Japanese at the port of Hirado.  To represent the Asian words for tea, Portuguese mariners and merchants engaged in phonetic substitution and used the Latin alphabet to reproduce the sound.  Thereafter, the Romanized word “cha” generally sufficed for early written reports about the herb to Lisbon. But there was a problem.  In the early sixteenth century, there was little consensus as to the spelling of ordinary European words let alone foreign names like cha and tea.  Among Lusitanian writers, the spelling of foreign words was a matter of personal choice or style or phonetics.  In the case of tea, the Benedictine monk Gaspar da Cruz italicized and spelled it “ch’a[2] and the Jesuit Luis d’Almeida wrote it as “chia,[3] while the adventurer Fernão Mendes Pinto chose the unitalicized “cha” sans apostrophe.[4] Initially influenced by reports from Lisbon and Rome, other Europeans later began to adopt Chinese and Japanese words in their vernaculars.  Lacking their own rules of spelling, however, the rest of Europe struggled to represent cha in their respective languages.[5]

Among English and French writers of the seventeenth century, cha was written “tcha.”[6] German writers were indiscriminate, one giving tea six names at different points in his description, including ”tsia,” “tzai,” and “cha.”[7] And in a single study of the plant, a German physician referred to tea as “tsia,” “tsja,” “tsjaa,” “ta,” and “sa,” among other names.[8] Compounding the Western chaos over spelling, there was the added confusion of tea having more than one Chinese name.  Europeans learned that cha 茶 was also pronounced te 茶.



[1] The modern Chinese reading of the character 茶 for tea is romanized in the pinyin romanization system as cha.  The obsolete English spellings of tea “tsia,” “tcha,” and “chia” attempted to reproduce cha, a sound made of the consonantal ch and the vowel a.  The sound ch is a digraph of two characters, c and h, representing a single consonantal sound or phoneme.  As a sound, ch is familiar to English speakers as the “ch” sound in “chip.”  In Chinese, the sound ch may be represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol /t∫/ which in phonology is described as a voiceless postalveolar affricate (or voiceless palato-alveolar affricate or domed postalveolar affricate).  In Japanese, the similar sound ch may be represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol /ʨ/ which in phonology is described as a voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate.  When the consonantal ch is combined with the vowel a the sound cha is formed: [t∫a] and/or [ʨa], a combination of the ch sound as in “church” with a long, soft a as in “father.”  In the mouth, the sound is produced by raising the tongue to the hard palate (alveopalatal) with a stop (affricate [t]) immediately followed by forcing the breath through the tongue, palate, and upper front teeth (fricative [∫]), lowering the tongue and jaw, opening the vocal tract, and voicing the low vowel [aː].  For a study of the words for tea, see Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, “The Genealogy of Words for Tea,” The True History of Tea (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), Appendix C, p. 264.

[2] Gaspar da Cruz, O.P. (Portuguese, circa 1620-1670), Tratado da China (1569) in South China in the sixteenth century: being the narratives of Galeote Pereira (Portuguese, active ca. 1549-1561), Fr. Gaspar da Cruz, O.P., Fr. Martín de Rada, O.E.S.A. (Spanish,1550-1575) (London : Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1953), pp. 140 and 214 and Aniceto dos Reis Gonçalves Viana (Portuguese, 1840-1914), Apostilas aos Dicionários Portugueses (Lisbon, 1906), vol. I, pp. 272-275.

[3] Letter from Luis d’Almeida, S.J. (Portuguese, 1518-1584) published in Giovanni Pietro Maffei, S.J. (Italian, 1533–1603), Le istorie dell’ Indie Orientali (Paris, 1572, Florence, 1588, and Cologn, 1589), Francesco Serdonati, trans. (Bergamo, 1749), bk. VI, p. 171.

[4] From the papers of Fernam Mendez Pinto (Portuguese, 1510-? after 1558) acquired from his widow in João de Lucena (Portuguese, 1500-1600), História da Vida do padre Francisco Xavier do que Fizeram na Índia os Mais Religiosos da Companhia de Jesus (Lisbon, 1600) Book VII, ch. 4; S. Rodolfo Dalgado, Influencia do Vocaulario Portugues em Linguas Asiaticas (Lisbon: Academy of Sciences, 1913), vol. 1, pp. 50-51; and Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado and Anthony X. Soares Portuguese vocables in Asiatic languages: from the Portuguese original of Monsignor Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado, Anthony X. Soares, trans. (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1988), Volume 1, pp. 93-95, esp. 94.

[5] Donald F. Lach, “Rebabelization,” Asia in the Making of Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), vol. 2, bk. 3, pp. 532-541.

[6] Mercurius Politicus, no. 435, September 30, (London,1658), first recorded tea advertisement, booked by The Sultaness Head Coffee House, London (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971), vol. I, p. 371);  Philippe Sylvestre Dufour (French, 1622-1687), Traitez Nouveaux & Curieux du Café, du Thé et du Chocolate (Lyons: Adrian Moetjens, 1685), chs. 1-5, pp. 193-256, esp. 195; and Pierre Pomet (French, 1658-1699), Compleat History of Drugs (1694) (London: 1712), vol. 1, ch. 5, p. 84.

[7] See the comments of Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo in Adam Olearius (German, 1603-1671), Beschreibung der Muscowitischen und Persischen Reise (Voyages and travels of the ambassadors sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia, Compleat history of Muscovy, Tartary, Persia & the East Indies; a.k.a. Voyages & travels of the ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia, begun in the year M.DC.XXXIII. and finish’d in M.DC.XXXIX; and Voyages & travels of Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo (German, 1616-1644), a gentleman belonging to the Embassy, sent by the Duke of Holstein to the great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia, into the East-Indies, 1656), John Davies, trans. (London: John Starkey and Thomas Basset, 1669), book II, p. 147, book II, p. 156, and book VI, p. 222, respectively.

[8] Engelberto Kaempfero (German, 1651-1716), Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum fasciculi v, quibus continentur variae relationes, observationes & descriptiones rerum Persicarum & ulterioris Asiae, multâ attentione, in peregrinationibus per universum Orientum, collecta, ab auctore (Five fascicles of exotic pleasures regarding politics, physics, and medicine, which contain various relations, observations, and descriptions of Persian matters and regions beyond Asia collected through various expeditions through the entire Orient by the author) (Lemgoviae, Typis & impensis H.W. Meyeri, 1712), fasciculus III, observatio 13, pp. 605 and 608 and fasciculus V, Plantarum Japonicarum, Classis 2, Plantus pomiferus & Nuciferus, p. 817 and Englebert Kaemper, Exotic Pleasures: Fascicle III Curious Scientific and Medical Observations, Robert W. Carrubba, trans. (Library of Renaissance Humanism, 1996), pp. 141 passim.

30. May 2011 by Steven D. Owyoung
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