I’ve always wondered why Burmese is an outlier among many languages in the world when it comes to tea. Not simply the concept and tradition of eating tea leaves, but the Burmese word for “tea” itself. Turns out there’s an explanation.
Cha or tea?
Among the major languages of the world, the Chinese pronunciations of “tea” (茶) have given rise to 2 major variations of the word: one from the Amoy Hokkien pronunciation of tê–and the other from the Cantonese pronunciation of cha:
|Language||Term for “tea”||Source|
|Bengali||cha চা||Cantonese cha|
(Wikipedia has a pretty thorough article on the etymology of tea.)
The Burmese outlier
Burmese is a clear outlier, using laphet (လက်ဖက်), as its word for “tea.” What gives? Folk etymology claims that the Burmese word comes from 2 native words, let (လက်), meaning “hand” and phet (ဖက်), meaning “leaf.”
However, the Language of Food provides a more academically rooted explanation for the origins of this word:
Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean ‘tea’ or ‘leaf’. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that’s the origin of the la (‘tea/leaf’) in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.
So if this explanation is correct, the Burmese la is a much earlier borrowing than the Chinese form of cha, which underwent several sound transformations to its current form, cha:
*la → *lra → *dra → cha
Interestingly enough, the Mon language has now borrowed back the Burmese word for “tea,” using လက်ဖက် (/ləphɛk/). Many Tibeto-Burman languages such as Karen, Naga, Yi, Lahu, Lisu, and Pa-O use variations of la as the word for “tea” or “leaf.”
It makes even sense when one considers that tea is native to the regions historically inhabited by Mon-Khmer speaking peoples (Sino-Tibetan speakers like the Chinese and Burmese are much more historically recent arrivals), and that tea cultivation likely began in the area between Southwestern China and Southeast Asia.
The more you know.