Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tea vs Chai—if by Land, or Sea

I'm having me a nice cuppa Yorkshire tea in me hond.... But Yorkshire tea, which I discovered while housesitting Dave Hansen's flat in Amsterdam, is hard to come by in the US. I found a rare stash at the Petaluma Grocery Outlet and bought up a big flat of tea. Soon it will be gone.

Currently I'm stranded in a lost republic between teas (any old tea won't do—most of the organic designer teas are fancily packaged hogwash). My mainstay, Trader Joe's, changed its Irish Breakfast tea a while back, leaving me adrift in a vast sea of peaty mediocre teas. I have a drawer-full of straw-flavored teas that I periodically recycle into iced tea, which is more forgiving on the taste buds than hot tea.

T.J.'s new twin packs of Irish Breakfast tastes suspiciously like Tetley's English Breakfast teadust dregs. The round teabags also look suspiciously like Tetley's. I can't tell them apart. I miss the old square bags of Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast tea. It made for a good cuppa tea.

Besides, I have issues with the idea of English Breakfast—politically incorrect in our household—no matter how similar they are. Who can taste the difference between English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast teas? I take that back, after a taste test, I concluded that there is a difference, English Breakfast is often more perfumy. I can't stand teas that smell like a flower stall.

At UC Berkeley's 1991 Celtic Colloquium Conference I was in charge of making the morning tea for our elevenses. I made real black tea, brewed in china pots—none of that tepid metallic urn water dumped into a mug with bagged tea that Americans are so fond of. 

Because the thirsty scholars were swilling tea (or free whiskey) faster than I could pour it, I opted for Tetley's bagged tea. A British scholar promptly dubbed the Tetley's tea as "chimp dust." 

When she saw my puzzled look, she explained that whatever was left over in the tea packing room, the cartoon chimps swept up afterwards and repackaged it as Tetley's. In other words, it wasn't the good stuff. But now, even the Tetley's chimp dust is also no longer as good as it used to be. 

I do like PG Tips, McGowan's, Lyons, or Barry's Irish Breakfast—when I can get it. But the tea's pricy and hard to get in bag form. T.J.'s Irish Breakfast tea was a real bargain at $2.99 a box. And it made a right good cuppa tae. OK, potta tae. I drink it by the potful.

I can hear you tea purists sniffing now: bagged tea? Unfortunately, I don't do mornings well. I'd need a strong cup of tea in order to make that pot of loose leaf tea first thing in the morning—or I'd be in danger of scalding myself.

Morning tea should be nice and black. None of that pale amber stuff. Tea should be strong enough for mice to skittle across its surface. I guess salted yak butter tea qualifies. Never tried it. But milk and sugar will do.

So when someone posted a Facebook link to a blog, The Language of Food, about the origin of tea, I nearly swooned.  
 Tea if by Sea from The Language of Food: a Linguist Reads the Menu. By Dan Jurafsky

We drink a lot of tea in San Francisco—I guess you should expect no less for a city originally named Yerba Buena, after a local wild herb in the mint family (Satureja douglasii) used as an herbal tea....
The Language of Food is a delightful romp through the history of tea. It focuses on real tea, not herbal tea, though tea itself is an herb—a fermented Camellia sinensis leaf native to north Burma and southwest China.

During the Shang Dynasty, tea, or t'u, was used medicinally. The Chinese character for tea is , originally written as  (pronounced t'u.) The earliest records of tea consumption date back to the 10th century BC, and Chinese legends attribute the invention of tea to Shennong, ca. 2737 BC. A 3rd century AD, medical text by Hua Tuo, stated that: to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better. Bitter is better. With butter?

The Portuguese sailors introduced tea to Europe in the 16th c. In 1660, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II of England, brought the tea habit to Great Britain. Tea was not readily available to the masses in Britain until the 18th c,. so smuggling was rampant, and its importance led to the Boston Tea Party and led to the end of British dominion in America. The Brits should've just let everybody have their cuppa tae in the end.

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis) from Köhler's Medicinal Plants

When tea arrived to Europe by sea via the Portuguese in the 16th c., it was called chá. Somewhere along the line, it was changed to tea, probably by the Dutch. Tea is pronounced differently in various Chinese languages: chá in Mandarin; zo / dzo in Wu Chinese; or ta / te in Min Chinese. Other Chinese words for tea: jia, she, ming and chuan. (—Wiki). Dan Jurafsky follows a compelling linguistic thread to include the word chai traveling overland via the Mongolian to Persian route.

Jurafsky writes:
These tea words ("tea", "cha", "chai", "matcha", "laphet") are players in an unusual linguistic story, in which two differing pronunciations of a word reflect the two ways that Europe and Asia have traded over the last 500 years: by land or by sea.
Jurafsky goes to great lengths to prove that if tea arrived overland across the Eurasian Steppes (via the Silk Road), then it was called chai.
The very first written mention of tea in Europe in 1559 is as Chiai, with an -i, by the Venetian travel writer Ramusio describing the Persian traveler Chaggi Memet...
However, I do have a very minor linguistic quibble with the basic premise of the article tea by sea as the Portuguese sailors who brought it to Europe in the 16th c., called it chá. They definitely didn't go overland, and their Chinese contacts were strictly maritime.
The second group of languages describes tea with a word pronounced something like "tey"—the way our English word tea used to be pronounced. This group includes western European languages like French (thé), Spanish (té), Italian (tè), and Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Welsh, Irish, and Hungarian. And, mysteriously, the very much non-European languages Indonesian and Malay.
I'm not sure if I'm buying the linguistic aspect of the entire tea- vs chai- arrival theory. Both the T- and CH- sound are too closely related. It really comes down to a matter of spelling from two different languages (or dialects, depending upon which army), Southern Min (in Taiwan), vs. Cantonese. I am reminded of the H.L. Menkin quote: There is always an easy solution to every problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. 
CH- is a modern Western orthographic approximation of a non-Latinate language system. Using modern Latinate orthography on an aural interpretation of a non Indo-European language family, is, at best, a slippery slope of an argument to convey pronunciation of the word tea. It depends on the listener/recorder's native language. 

For example, Manx and Irish are closely related dialects—you'd never know it, as English orthography was used to transcribe Manx, and Latin was used as the base language to convey Irish. 

In addition, in several IE languages, there are both soft and hard consonants: t/ch. What determines hard/soft (slender) sound is the vowel. Tea/chai. Also, Persian is an Indo-European language, like Hindi, not Turkic. "La" is another story altogether. 

I do love Dan Jurafsky's poetic statement: "chai if by land, tea if by sea." And it's probably more or less true. But it is a minor accentual difference. Like bags vs begs, or park/pahk in Boston. Or Ha ha ha vs Ja ja ja (same sound, different languages.)

What it really comes down to is this: the (Latinate-speaking) Portuguese traders of Hong Kong and Macao heard the word as chá, and the (Germanic-speaking) Dutch traders in Indonesia and Java heard it as tea.

Yes, in Irish, follows those "tey" rules, but that's a slender, or soft T sound, more like CHI. Full circle—except for the extra Persian case ending of -i, of course. But Jurafsky notes that extra i in cha-i is an alternative ending. "Persian nouns ending in long -â have alternative forms ending in -i." That makes it chaayi? In Ireland and Scotland, it's usually pronounced tae, as in the River Tay, not tea (tee).

So, how did the Persians really pronounce tea? Cha? (Wiki says the Persian چای is chay, derived from the Cantonese 茶 chá. So, chay rhymes with the Hibernio-English pronunciation of tae. Apparently the English word "tea" (tee), comes from Teochew Chinese "teeh".)

And of course, Starbuck's, in a rare tautological move, has chai tea on the menu—tea-tea. Like the River Avon (river-river), you might say something got lost in the translation.

Oops! My cup's emp-ty. Think I'll have another cuppa tea with me potta tae.

As my grannie would say: tea makes you pee.

If you've a hankering for Lyons, Barry's, Scottish Blend, or Yorkshire, try Good prices for bag and tins of loose leaf teas. They also carry the usual suspects, Taylors, Tetley, Twining's etc. Who knew PG Tips made so many teas? 

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