Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mbomba Estate: What's in a Consonant Combination?

Recently I sampled Mbomba Estate BOP from Upton Tea Imports. It was a very inexpensive broken-leaf tea, but of surprising quality and complexity given both the low price ($4.40 / 125 grams) and the fact that the leaf was so finely broken.

One thing that I find amusing is that many people have an intuition that the tea is probably African in origin, just because of the presence of the unusual "mb" combination of consonants at the beginning of the name Mbomba. This combination may be familiar from names like the Kenyan-American star athlete Mbarak Hussein or the creator god Mbombo in the Kuba culture of central Africa. This tea is indeed African, from Malawi to be specific.

Consonant combinations:

Consonant combinations are interesting in that some of them appear frequently in some languages but are very rare in others. Mb is virtually unheard of in English at the beginning of a word, but is common in the middle of words. On RateTea, 48 of the listed teas contain the "mb" combination in their name, but only this one contains it at the beginning of a word or name.

Another fun consonant combination: "tl":

Another favorite combination of mine is "tl", which is uncommon in English, and much rarer in older Indo-European languages, but commonplace in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and thus, in words and names derived from that or similar languages, like axolotl (a critically endangered species of salamander).

One of the few words in these older languages that contains the "tl" combination is the word "Atlantic", which comes from the same etymological root as Atlas (so those are not distinct words). I actually could not find any old words with this combination, although they start cropping up as contractions of sounds, around 1400...for example myrtus-->myrtillus-->mirtile-->myrtle as the word shifted from Latin to French to English. Do "tl"'s occur in tea names?

A strange coincidence:

Is it a coincidence that when you start in Europe, and cross the ocean named by one of the few names containing "tl", you arrive at a culture whose language is chock full of "tl"'s? These cultures supposedly had no contact during the time period in which the "tl" sound was assigned to this ocean. Possibly a coincidence, but strange enough to make me think.

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