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In just about every language, the word for "tea" can be traced to one of two variants of the same word.

  • Te, from the Amoy of Fujian Province and Taiwan.
  • Cha, from the Cantonese chàh of Guangzhou (Canton).

Wikipedia indicates that Lao "ຊາ" (saa) is in the latter, "cha" lineage.

This makes me wonder why it has an "s" sound rather than a "ch" sound, given that Lao does have a "ch" sound, and its close relative, Thai, "ชา" (cha) uses a "ch" sound.

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I see no contradiction here:

Lao: ຊ (ຊ ຊ້າງ) [so sâːŋ]
is a direct equivalent of
Thai: ช ช้าง [tɕʰo tɕʰáːŋ]

This even includes the meaning of the verbose name of the consonant ("an elephant").

Many other words "behave" the same, they preserve their written forms but pronounced according to each language's standards:

  • "nation" ชนชาติ [tɕʰon tɕʰâːt] - ເຊື້ອຊາດ [seuo sâːt]
  • "win" ชนะ [tɕʰá náʔ] - ຊະນະ [sa na]
  • "help" ช่วย [tɕʰûaj] - ຊ່ວຍ [sûaj]

Phonetically, the Lao consonant may have softened a bit comparing to its Tai (not Thai) origin, resembling (IMHO) the Chinese consonant [x], as in "小" [xiao3].

...and not “ຈາ” (chaa)?

ຈ ຈອກ [tɕo tɕɔ̏ːk] is a totally different consonant:

  • It's unaspirated in Thai, and probably it was so in proto-Tai languages; This alone is a dramatic difference;
  • Mid class (versus ຊ Low class), the whole set of words will require different tone marks;
  • It's a direct equivalent of Thai จ จาน [tɕo tɕaːn];

P.S. Latin transcription may be a false friend as it suggests no difference between:

  • [tɕʰ] -> ch
  • [tɕ] -> ch

I would rather write [tɕʰ] -> chh if I could.

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  • But this is a borrowing so hasn't had as long to evolve as native words. That would suggest they prefer etymological borrowings, that Lao has undergone sound changes since borrowing this word, or that it was a borrowing from Thai based on the written form, etc. Is that usual in Lao? Would this word have from Cantonese back in proto-Tai times as you appear to suggest? – hippietrail Sep 14 '13 at 12:05
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    @hippietrail It's a good question, how exactly the loanwords evolve in sister languages. Even if Lao phonetics changed before the word borrowed, what another consonant could be used for this word? "ຈາ" means "to speak", a much older word than "tea". – bytebuster Sep 14 '13 at 12:17
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    Hmm that's an interesting point. But short words like this tend to have synonyms in most languages. The words for tea definitely do in Chinese and English. Of course I suppose there's at least some chance it might've ended up with a different tone too. – hippietrail Sep 14 '13 at 13:37

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