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?

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    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? Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 12:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I have edited the question and included what initially was my answer.
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 13:17
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    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. Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 7:04
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    Looking at the senses involved, I can see how the difference between grassland and marshland (besides flatness) is that the water in marshland reflects light and identifies wet places, at least in the sun.
    – jlawler
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 21:13
  • In fact, certain species of bird are attracted to [bright shiny object]()s, giving rise to a metaphor thst is sometimes used to describe a certain kind of etymologist. I'm no biologist but do suspect this trade develops from the perception of sparkling reflections as key stimulus in search for water.
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 21:27

4 Answers 4


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.

I think there is indeed such a connection, but having nothing to do with cottongrass or other fluffy white plants.

In addition to the apparent connections in Indo-European languages, such a connection exists in Chinese, where the character/morpheme /泽/zé exhibits such apparently diverse meanings. This character/morpheme still appears in compounds while adding or reinforcing the meanings:

  1. pool; pond; marsh

E.g., 沼澤/沼泽/zhǎozé ("swamp; bog; marsh")

  1. damp; moist; dew(y)

E.g., 潤澤/润泽/rùnzé ("moist; damp")

  1. luster, sheen

E.g., 光澤/光泽/guāngzé ("lustre; gloss; sheen")

  1. favor, grace; charity

E.g, 恩澤/恩泽/ēnzé ("great favor")

According to Schuessler's ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, the character/morpheme 澤/泽/zé meant something like "unfold/draw out" and combined with other affixes produced words meaning "unloose"; "let go"; "explain"; "interpret." There is also the graphically, and presumably etymologically, related character/morpheme /yì, which means "bright."

A reasonably explanation for these facts is that the concept of sheen or luster gives a semantic connection to all these meanings. The concept of wet or wetlands could explain the meaning "marsh." Wet foliage covered in dew has a sheen that resembles the clear luster of certain jewels that lends them a certain shininess. Opening something up also lets light in and "clears" it up.

These Chinese etymons do not, however, include the meaning "white." There is the character/morpheme 白, which is the normal word for "white," but is also a morpheme that can add the meaning "understand," "explain"; "clear." Wiktionary puts these under one etymon, but the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese puts the meaning "understand" under a different phonetic reconstruction and a different etymon borrowed from Austroasiatic, citing as an example Vietnamese biẽt.

Even, without the Chinese evidence, you have Proto-Indo-European *lewk- giving rise to the meaning "white," "light," "shine," and "see" in daughter languages: e.g., ancient Greek λευκός ("white"), Latin lūx ("light"), English ("light"), Latin lūceō ("shine"), and ancient Greek λεύσσω ("see clearly," "examine").

Based on all these relationships, you can posit meanings linked on something like the following lines:

marsh<--wetland<--wet-->glossy-->shiny-->gleaming (e.g., "teeth")-->white


I don't know any Baltic language or any Albanian, and I don't have any formal linguistic training, but I'll give it a go:

A marsh is not only characterised by being wet, but also by being an open space, with fewer trees than a forest. On a walk through a Scandinavian forest, the wet parts also stand out as the brightest parts, with less shade.

I can only presume nature in the Baltics is similar. Perhaps this is the case in China as well, but one would have to take a few more steps to get the connection to water @Vegawatcher mentions.

An attested similar connection in English is the word 'glade', as in an open space in a forest, where Wiktionary suggest it originating from Old English 'glæd' (“shining, bright”). There's also the German 'Lichtung' with the same meaning (related to English 'light'). The Swedish 'glänta' has the same meaning and etymology.

With at least two different roots (I think?) in Germanic languages both having meanings relating both to open spaces and to light, it wouldn't be incredible to see the same thing happening in other languages as well.

Connecting brightness to the colour white is easy by comparison.

I stress again that I'm just guessing, but I think the connection seems natural enough.

Edit: In contrast, the Swedish word for forest, 'skog', and shadow, 'skugga', both stem from an IE root meaning to cover or to protrude, which also descended into words like 'sky' and 'obscure'.

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    The only trouble with this hypothesis is that marshes – in my Scandinavian experience, at least – tend to be located near, and associated with, grasslands (in opposition to which we also call them wetlands), not forests. Glades are much more obvious since, by definition, they are tree-free spots in forests and are distinguished precisely by being brighter. Marshes are much larger and don’t really have any ‘enclosing’ dark area around them, so while it’s obviously true that marshes are brighter than forests, it’s not really obvious to name them in relation to them. Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 11:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I am not sure but some territories in Eastern Europe like the hypothetical lands from were the Slavs possibly came were both marshy and forested. Slavs' original homeland, lifestyle and war tactics were associated with both marshes and woodlands.
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 18:58
  • There is a clear connection between open spaces in the middle of the forest and the idea of light or brightness (cf. "clearing" in English and "clairière" in French. In my native Romanian also there is the direct relation with light, Latin"lumen", Romanian "lumina", hence "luminiș"=meadow, glade.) There is also this obscure relation between marshes and light that we discussed here. What we farther need is another connection between marshes and glades/meadows/forest clearings in order to connect the three elements. Have you found that?
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 19:18
  • Glades are clearly connected with light, marshes too, but not clearly why. An explanation could come if marshes were connected with glades (which would serve as missing link). But are they? I see that meadow is connected to to mow, reap.
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 19:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - Marshes can be related to forests ( Romanian padure=forest comes from Latin paludem=marsh, just like pyll in Albanian) -- but not directly to meadows/glades as far as I see for the moment...
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 17, 2022 at 19:31

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
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 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. Commented Jul 22, 2021 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. Commented Jul 22, 2021 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
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 15:30

simply put, clean water is bright and translucent as supposed to dark and opaque. Fertile meadows near clean water may be thought of as healthy, or literally soaked, soggy. I refer to German saftig "juicy", said occasionally of grass as well as green color.

Further tangential evidence is provided by etymologies of green, yellow and (baby) blue, turquoise, bleen etc. corroborating the basic facts of color perception that those are light colors, typologically emerging as distinct from brownish shades which include most often red, ochre and the like, which may be triviallly associated with barren dirt, wood, not to mention stone gray lacking in color.

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