mapping tea ~

mapping the words for tea

My younger son — who knows how I love tea — also knows how I love words. Of course, it’s hard to be a writer if you don’t. But even as a child I was fascinated by language, how it shifted when we moved (as we did often). How it wasn’t, as I thought at 8 years old, just a different way to pronounce the same words. It was, as the map shows, the difference between tea, or té, and chai, or cha.

While both words originate in Chinese (where legend has it tea does, as well), they’re vastly different in sound. These days, they’ve even come to stand for different tastes in tea.

So it wasn’t simply accent. Instead, it was (and is) the history of difference, the story of how history seeps through the intersections of language, history, and culture, muddling all three into a brew that has steeped over the centuries.

It was etymology, in other words. One of my favourite topics (I like it almost as much as tea ~)

What I love about words is what all poets love about language, I suspect: the slippage. It’s what allows for literary criticism — did s/he mean this? does that word mean that? It’s talking to students (well, it was — now it’s sometimes boring complete strangers!) about how the tree in your head may be a holly (the signified object, as Saussure would say), which is waaay different from the mimosa in mine. And yet both nestle within the confines of the signifier — tree.

Back to tea: it’s the way ‘smoke tea’ — a new blend from Harney’s — may be a nice black tea smoked (like its sibling Lapsang Souchong) over wood, but it’s made in Taiwan, not the Wuyi Mountains of China. Like language, it matters where you are. In language, it’s an accent (or like American English vs British English, a completely different meaning! Try asking for a biscuit in the two countries, and see the differences! Hint: only the Brit biscuit goes very well w/ afternoon tea!

I drink teas from around the world. The same younger son who sent me this cool article also brought me back some lovely green and/or herbal tea from ViệtNam this past Christmas. It’s very sweet, but from the tea itself, w/ a lovely flavour. In the tea cabinet, there are also Chinese black teas, Canadian ice wine tea, South African rooibos, Indian chais. There is French vervaine and American chamomile rose. Just like my own travel-laden vernacular — with words lifted from French, Spanish, Persian (English needs a word for taarof!), and more — my tea ‘vocabulary’ is multi-national.

I’m thinking that only makes sense, right? I mean ~ look at that map! And that doesn’t even begin to discuss how Americans like tea iced, w/ lemon. While Brits drink it hot, w/ milk (I drink it both ways!). And the Chinese use small gaiwans, handle-less cups that when too hot to hold, remind you that the tea may be too hot to drink. I have several. When I lived in Algeria, I drank sweet mint tea from a zarf, a metal holder for a cup used for both tea & coffee.

All of this is just to say — tea is international. And it’s the cheapest way I know (short of a library book!) to steep yourself in another culture. Maybe you should try a new one this afternoon!

Published by: Britton Gildersleeve

Writer Britton Gildersleeve grew up in Southeast Asia, moved to the Middle East when she married, and returned to Oklahoma to raise her two sons. Now that they're grown, she and her beloved live in Virginia, where she can be closer to sons, daughter-in-law, & grandsons. Sometimes she hears voices, so she writes ~

Categories language, tea, traveling, wordsTags, , Leave a comment

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