At the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) conference several years ago, I attended a small panel discussion whose goal was to identify areas of overlap in East Asian languages. The panel leader began the talk with the observation that European languages are so inter-related that even ones as superficially disparate as his native English and adopted Russian shared many cognates, especially in specialized language. As an example, he uttered 5-6 words in Russian from the field of linguistics, which we all in the audience immediately recognized even though, by a show of hands, none of us spoke Russian.
Similarly, I have a minor in Spanish. Before a trip to Brazil a few years ago, I found a free website that teaches 12-15 ways to tweak Spanish to turn it into passable Portuguese. It worked really well. After an investment of 30 hours, I spoke halting but understandable Portuguese. Mother Latin splintered to bits and evolved into a passel of modern European siblings that all bear a striking resemblance to each other in a process that occurred well within recorded history and, all things considered, not long ago. A student of Spanish picking up French, having learned that Sp. haber is Fr. avoir, only needs a little luck to guess that Sp. deber is Fr. devoir. Know a little Latin, and the whole thing gets quite easy.
In Asia, Mandarin is the grand anchor of one large language family that doesn’t include Japanese or Korean. Scholars don’t even consider the three to form a Sprachbund, a “federation of languages” that may be genetically unrelated but, like human neighbors, rub off on each other through close contact. Scholars don’t even agree on whether Japanese and Korean are in the same family, and even those who do reckon they split apart well more than two millennia ago. While a student of Spanish, knowing the word ‘haber’, has a decent shot of guessing the word’s cousin in French (avoir), Italian (avere), and Portuguese (haver), a student of Chinese can’t even assume that Japanese or Korean approach the concept of ‘having’ the same way.
I hope that’s not a downer, because where I’m going is that I don’t think the situation is as hopeless as all that. China was a massive and sustained exporter of loan words in all directions, so much so that even if you can’t make leaps that predict a word in another language, you can use these relationships in a highly mnemonic way. If a person who knows one Asian language can leverage that easily to learn 200 words (or characters) in the language of a neighboring country, that’s a win, right?
So today I’m starting a new project, which is to identify a body of a couple hundred frequently occurring words (or characters) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. I’ll start with an easy one that’s virtually identical in all three: tea. Chá (second tone, ‘rising’) is also ‘cha’ in Japanese and Korean. (Newcomers to Japanese, you usually say ‘ocha’ in Japanese. The o- is just an honorific prefix that’s stuck onto lots of words. Don’t sweat it: ask for ‘cha’ in a restaurant, and your waiter will understand.)
As a project (whose working title ‘cha-cha-cha’ for better or ill has stuck in my head), I’ll focus mostly on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. By way of an aside, in an age of political tension, I make a habit of listing those three languages alphabetically. In this project, however, I’ll list cognates in the order Chinese-Korean-Japanese because Korean pronunciation of loanwords seems (to me) closer to Chinese than Japanese, as, for example the Chinese character 东 (東) dōng was borrowed into Korean as 동 ‘dong’ but into Japanese as ‘tō’. But while I focus on those three, Chinese loanwords certainly found their way into SE Asian languages as well, and, in this case ‘cha’ has cognates not just across SE Asia: Tagalog ‘tsaa’ (pronounced ‘cha’), Thai ชา ‘cha’, Lao ‘cha’, but also in South Asia (Hindi चाय ‘chāy’) and the Middle East (Farsi چای ‘chāy’, Arabic شاي ‘shāy’).
The spread of the word ‘tea’, which most languages borrowed from ‘cha’ or else from the southern Min (Simp 闽, Trad 閩) pronunciation ‘te’, is of such interest to professional linguists that a language’s word for ‘tea’ is very often captured in the World Atlas of Language Structures database, a free online language database you can read about under the “Cool Language Resources” tab here. If you’re interested, you can read about the history and spread of tea in Tuttle’s Tea: The Drink that Changed the World by Laura Martin, which, like many of our books, is now available in ebook format.