The origins of ‘laphet’

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 –and the other from the Cantonese pronunciation of cha: 

Language Term for “tea” Source
Dutch thee Hokkien 
English tea
French thé
German Tee
Indonesian teh
Spanish
Bengali cha চা Cantonese cha
Japanese cha
Korean cha 
Thai cha ชา
Portuguese chá
Vietnamese trà

(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.

4 thoughts on “The origins of ‘laphet’

  1. Wagaung says:

    The original and correct spelling has always been let-hpet . Just because it’s pronounced lahpet and people misspell it all the time as it sounds, it does not follow that you can revise let to la as its root. I’m tempted to hazard a guess that since hpet is normally confined to a large broad leaf you can wrap things with like the banana leaf, it may have started as let-hpè meaning snap off by hand which is how it’s picked by Palaung women on the hills.

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      You definitely bring up a valid issue, as laphet is in fact, spelled “lak pak,” barring shorthand forms like လ္ဘက်. However, over the centuries, the Burmese language has undergone major pronunciation shifts, so လက် as it is pronounced today, may have once been pronounced more like “lak.”

      And while လက်ဖဲ့ is certainly a tempting explanation, the fact that ဖက် and ဖဲ့ rhyme today (the former being a glottal stop, the latter a creaky tone) is the result of a fairly recent vowel merger in the Burmese language. Historically, ဖဲ့ was pronounced more like “pai” (ဖိုက်), which is why the traditional Burmese name for Chiang Mai (ဇင်းမယ်) is now pronounced “Zin Me,” not “Zin Mai.”

      • Wagaung says:

        Admittedly words like let-htet (reign), let-chet (act/deed) and let-hwey (boxing) etc. have not changed in pronunciation over the centuries. So both let and hpet here are open to interpretation.

        Never heard of hpè pronounced hpike, no such word except the Burmese corruption of the English word five or fight. Chiang Mai (always been Zin Mè throughout history) is only now pronounced Chin My by those Burmese who have been there, likewise Kunming (Ku Min) became Khwin Min except to the uninitiated majority.

  2. Aung Kyaw says:

    As with all languages, standard Burmese has undergone a significant transformation over the centuries, including the “Great Consonantal Shift,” a series of wide-ranging consonant shifts in the 1700-1800’s (including the pronunciation of သ from /s/ → /θ/).

    The ‘divergent’ dialects of Burmese, including those that splintered off long ago (Intha) and dialects that branched off more recently (Yaw), still preserve the original rhyme of -က်, which is pronounced /-aʔ/, not standard Burmese /-ɛʔ/, so a word like laphet would be pronounced /laʔpʰaʔ/ (latphat) in these dialects. Several prominent Sino-Tibetan/Tibeto-Burman scholars (Tatsuo Nishida, E.G. Pulleyblank, Paul Benedict, Robert Jones, Gong Hawng-Cherng) have all reconstructed the -က် rhyme in Old Burmese as /-ak/, not /-ek/ and -ယ် as /-ay/, not /-ɛ/. There is a denser explanation available within this paper: “Old Burmese: Toward the History of Burmese.”

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