Although a closed question, reading THIS we find a link to Wictionary with the text:

From Proto-Albanian *baltā (“marsh”), hypothetically from a Proto-Indo-European *bʰolHto- (“white > marsh”), a derivative of *bʰel- (“shining, white”). Cognate with Proto-Slavic *bolto (“swamp”), Lithuanian báltas (“white, shining”).

I have also found for other terms (related to the same family/root) this etymological connection between forms meaning white/shining and others meaning swamp.

How is that connection possible? On what rationale is it based?

There is a Wictionary article Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/bolto which says:

The semantic connection between "white" and "swamp, mud" is not obvious, but has been attested in many languages. Beside the mentioned Lithuanian, also in e.g., Old Polish biel (“mud, swamp”) (< *bělь, from *bělъ (“white”)). This is probably due to the widespread presence of the marsh grass called cottongrass (genus Eriophorum), whose the white fluffy seed heads are white, or the color of the dried clay taking light hue, depending on soil.

And shows this picture as... proof:

enter image description here

It is: "Eriophorum scheuchzeri, with white fluffy seed heads, is found throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere in acid bog habitats."

I'm personally not very convinced.

It seems that it's the use (practical/empirical closeness) that imposes this connection, not any pre-concived rule, although the botanical explanation looks odd.

The second part of the question was posted by me as an answer to an initial form of the question asking simply "why" the terms for white and shining are considered connected. Now I see that the answer was that they were "semantically connected" .

But why? Isn't a such explanation circular, and if not: why?

What does it mean that a semantic connection that is not obvious is nevertheless attested?

  • Good question. I’m not an expert on marshes, but I wouldn’t generally consider them particularly white, bright or shining. Perhaps it’s because there tends to be fairly still water in marshes which reflects the sunlight? Jul 22 at 12:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I have edited the question and included what initially was my answer.
    – cipricus
    Jul 22 at 13:17
  • not so "MANY languages" (~6000 languages exist on the Earthl)... the "Balts" tribes and Slavs are clear relatives in IE, and the Albanian just was under the Slavic influence... Really the "white" as "balts" exist in this two "baltic" languages only, and no a real connection between "baltic" "balts-white" and Slavic "bolhto-marsh" . ... but has been attested in many languages. " - ye ? in which ? how ? "cottongrass (genus Eriophorum), " - this is a curious, of course, but is just a speculation. Aug 12 at 7:04

It's most probably a complete chance coincidence. Words meaning "marsh" are probably substratic in light of Basque (correction not balta => sorry the right word is) baltsa "marsh, pond, also mud". The other words meaning "white" have nothing to do here.

  • 1
    Can you give more info on the Basque term? some link? In relation to what I've found, I would like in any case to learn what stands behind the formula semantic connection which is "attested", but not "obvious". I mean how is a connection "attested"?
    – cipricus
    Jul 22 at 12:57
  • Can you show some evidence for Basque balta ‘marsh’? I don’t speak Basque, but I’ve now looked in three different Basque dictionaries, Google Translate and the Basque versions of Wiktionary and Wikipedia, and none of them include balta as a Basque word at all (the article ‘Balta’ on Basque Wikipedia is about a place in Romania). It would also be highly unexpected for a Vasconic (= Western European) substrate word to only show up in Slavic and Albanian (= Eastern Europe) and nowhere else. Without some strong corroboration, this seems a very unlikely answer. Jul 22 at 13:44
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    All right, baltsa is in the dictionary, in the senses ‘slush(y snow), mud’ and ‘fish bank’, although ‘marshy land’ is one of the senses given for Proto-Basque here. Still, there is the geographic issue, as well as the fact that both the PB form and all its descendants have , s or ts as part of the root, which none of the BS/Balkan forms do: they all have a plain t or nothing at all, more consistent with a PIE-style t-suffix. Jul 22 at 15:16
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - Wictionary on Albanian baltë mentions the possibility of a root related to a "Mediterranean substrate" for the very reason that it appears also more to the west, in Italian (palta).
    – cipricus
    Jul 22 at 15:30

This idea is widely known, cp. Moskwa, Madriz, Dresden, Berlin, ... just from the top of my head.

Although, there's a fairly wide spread, not to say universal analogy from black and white to good and bad for a start. Bipartition is very simple kind of contrast that one has to be careful with reconstructed semantics for dozens of different reconstructions in PIE that gloss shiny, bright or something similar may be synonymous but certainly not identical in any given context, not the least because color words tend to develop only recently. So blue for example has also meant fair or light. The same care has to be taken with swamps and marshes, of course.

Although the idea of marsh land is often connected to fertile ground, it is evident that frugal people also depended on water supply. The city of Weisswasser in Germany for example, what translates literally to white water and may be a more recent coinage on account of the transparent meaning (though perhaps a cryptic alusion to the Oder, or woder from Slavic "water") since German etymology sticks out like a sore thumb in an area that is dominated by formerly Slavic toponyms, well, it evokes an image of crystal clear, clean water without doubt.

Another semantic pair would be depth and shallows in case of rivers, that drain the basins. Shallow river segments are important for crossings.

In a similar sense, light and black woods might describe the density of forestation, light literally so.

However, the chance for meatballs is considerable. Folk etymology appears very likely if fluency in the language is variable, so the similarity between *wleykʷ- (“to flow, run”, cp. liquid, from Latin, reflexes witnessed only in Italic, Celtic and Tocharian, in the latter of which it only means "wash"), *h₂ékʷeh₂ ("water”, cp. aqua, is-land, obsolete German Ach" river"), *h₁egʷʰ- (“drink”, cp. Pol. pivo" bear" for example"), *h₂ep- (“water, body of water”, everywhere, eg. Lithuanian *ùpė "brook, river", Old Church Slavonic вапа "swamp, standing water", maybe the river Po) could be easily confused with *lewk- (“white; light; bright”, cp. light, also L. lux), *bhlegh- "flamma", or on the other hand *h₂eh₃- (“to be hot, to burn”), *h₁engʷ-, *dʰegʷʰ-, *dʰgʷʰer-, *h₁ews- etc. similar to burn (hom. "well, source", cp. Ger. Brunnen "well" vs brennen "to burn) besides brew (?). It goes without saying that burning is bright.

NB: Not only is heated water properly sterilized, but it has been shown that Indo European expansions had involved clearing forests, surely to make way for aggricultere (eg. Kristian Kristiansen et al. if I remember correctly).

That's more significant than I had hoped for when comparing only *wleykʷ- and *lewk- and got carried away.

Actually I wanted to reprimand traditional hydronymy to recall Harald Bichlmeyer's efforts denying the certainty of etymologies for select examples like the Elbe (compared eg. with *albos "white", or *h2elh1- "to flow") especially in disagreemsnt with Old European Hydronymy after Hans Krahe which wasn't so much in question here but see @ArnaudFournet above for a similar substrate hypothesis.

In addition it mught be notable that the semantics of ''meadow'' for a pasture may be comparable as well, that is hypocoristic wet land or fat land.

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