The etymology of the word ‘tea’ has been the subject of fierce debate since the dawn of British philology. Tea already had an approximation of its modern phonetic value when it came to Europe in the 16th Century, via Portuguese import, but it is well known that the character 茶 was pronounced [thu] in classical Chinese. The circumstances of the change in vowel quality have never been fully explained
During China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the indispensability of cavalry units in contemporary warfare gradually became clear to the emperors. Unfortunately, China proper had little experience with raising horses, and little available land. On the other hand, adjacent principalities were known to be very good at equestrian husbandry
Silk Road trade routes were already thriving in this period, but unfortunately these routes did not pass any states that produced horses in significant numbers. The nomads of the Mongolian steppes were difficult to trade with, as they tended to attack before parlaying, and in any case a large wall blocked most potential trade routes in that direction. Therefore, an early Tang Emperor commissioned his Minister of Commerce, Forestry, Court Ritual and Water Diversion Projects to seek out a means of obtaining horses from the Tibetan highlands.
Two Porters, each with 20 pounds of tea and a six-
The Minister suspected that failure in this commission could prove fatal, and entrusted the job to a young but rising star in his department, Zheng Hə. Zheng correctly guessed that an addictive beverage would be a sufficient tool. Tea was offered for horses (at a pound-
As I have already told you, “tea” was pronounced [thu] in ancient Chinese. Unfortunately, this was homophonous with both “rabbit” and also “throw up”, which led not only to bad jokes but also to angry porters, who did not appreciate slipping frequently as they stepped in puddles left by their suggestible compatriots.
In fact, as the terrain was mountainous and the trails treacherously steep, the journey became so dangerous that it became difficult to recruit porters willing to undertake it. Wages rose; the trade brought in fewer horses. The emperor was displeased. A solution was needed, and fast.
Once again, the Minister (whose Department now included Commerce, Freshwater Fishing, Warfare, Ceramics, and Water Restoration Projects) was summoned. He, in turn, summoned his trusted assistant Zheng Hə.
Zheng reasoned that the problem this time was purely linguistic. If only the words for “tea” and “throw up” were less similar, unfortunate Pavlovian associations could be avoided. It was pointless, Zheng realized, to try to change the word for “throw up”, as nobody could talk about it without either laughing or, well, throwing up. Therefore, he decided to change the word for “tea”.
Zheng was a sensible man. He knew that government decree would be worthless in changing linguistic behavior. His pursuit of a solution led him straight to the people he wished to help: the porters. So he asked them what they’d prefer to call “tea.”
The porters saw their own interests at play, and readily cooperated. They reasoned that, since the weight they carried uphill was equivalent to what came back down in exchange, they could just use the same word for the two commodities. So they suggested using the Tibetan word for “horse” to refer to both entities. As seasoned traders, they already knew this word.
The Tibetan word for “horse” was pronounced [hta]. The porters, unfortunately, were on the whole poor language learners, and in any case they were continually out of breath. Therefore, they had been unable to master the tricky Tibetan pre-
Zheng himself (who later became Minister of the Department of Commerce, Vowels, Dried Shad, Flour Mills, Almanacs, Roads and Water Re-diversion Projects) never visited Tibet, and thus went to his grave totally unaware of his phonetic blunder. Had he collected his field data himself, history might enshrine him as the first specialist in the field of language contact. As it is, modern sociolinguistics knows him instead as an unwitting demonstrator of the fact that “change from below” may actually come from above, when social climbers are involved.