The Balts or Baltic people (Lithuanian: baltai, Latvian: balti) are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group who speak the Baltic languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by tribes of central Eastern Europe in the west to the Moscow, Oka and Volga river basins in the east. The Baltic languages form a part of the wider group of Balto-Slavic languages.

Total population
c. 5.5 million
Regions with significant populations
 Lithuania 2,563,325
 Latvia 1,253,493
Baltic languages
Related ethnic groups
Slavs (mostly Belarusians, Kashubians and Pomeranians)

One of the features of Baltic languages is the number of conservative or archaic features retained.[1] Among the Baltic peoples are modern Lithuanians, Latvians (including Latgalians) — all Eastern Balts — as well as the Old Prussians, Yotvingians and Galindians — the Western Balts — whose languages and cultures are now extinct.


Medieval German chronicler Adam of Bremen in the latter part of the 11th century AD was the first writer to use the term Baltic in its modern sense to mean the sea of that name.[2][3] Before him were various ancient places names, such as Balcia,[4] meaning a supposed island in the Baltic Sea.[2]

It should not be surprising that Adam, a speaker of German, might connect Balt- with "Belt", a word he was familiar with. However, linguistics has since established that Balt means white. Common are Baltic words containing the stem balt-, "white",[5] which may also refer to shallow bodies of water including marshes.

In Germanic languages there was some form of "East Sea" until after about 1600, when maps in English labeled it the "Baltic Sea". By 1840, the German nobles of the Governorate of Livonia adopted the term "Balts" to distinguish themselves from Germans of Germany. They spoke an exclusive dialect, Baltic German. For many, that was the “Baltic language” until 1919.[6][7]

In 1845, Georg Heinrich Ferdinand Nesselmann proposed a distinct language group for Latvian, Lithuanian and Old Prussian—Baltic.[8] The term became prevalent after Latvia and Lithuania gained independence in 1918. Up until the early 20th century, either “Latvian” or “Lithuanian” could be used to mean the entire language family.[9]



The Balts or Baltic peoples, defined as speakers of one of the Baltic languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family, are descended from a group of Indo-European tribes who settled the area between the lower Vistula and southeast shore of the Baltic Sea and upper Daugava and Dnieper rivers. Because the thousands of lakes and swamps in this area contributed to the Balts' geographical isolation, the Baltic languages retain a number of conservative or archaic features.

Some of the major authorities on Balts, such as Kazimieras Būga, Max Vasmer, Vladimir Toporov and Oleg Trubachyov, in conducting etymological studies of eastern European river names, were able to identify in certain regions names of specifically Baltic provenance, which most likely indicate where the Balts lived in prehistoric times. This information is summarized and synthesized by Marija Gimbutas in The Balts (1963) to obtain a likely proto-Baltic homeland. Its borders are approximately: from a line on the Pomeranian coast eastward to include or nearly include the present-day sites of Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, and Kursk, northward through Moscow to the River Berzha, westward in an irregular line to the coast of the Gulf of Riga, north of Riga.


The area of Baltic habitation shrank due to assimilation by other groups, and invasions. According to one of the theories which has gained considerable traction over the years, one of the western Baltic tribes, the Galindians, Galindae, or Goliad, migrated to the area around modern day Moscow, Russia around the 4th century AD.[10]

Over time the Balts became differentiated into Western and Eastern Balts. In the 5th century AD parts of the eastern Baltic coast began to be settled by the ancestors of the Western Balts: Brus/Prūsa ("Old Prussians"), Sudovians/Jotvingians, Scalvians, Nadruvians, and Curonians. The Eastern Balts, including the hypothesised Dniepr Balts, were living in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

Germanic peoples lived to the west of the Baltic homelands; by the first century AD, the Goths had stabilized their kingdom from the mouth of the Vistula, south to Dacia. As Roman domination collapsed in the first half of the first millennium CE in Northern and Eastern Europe, large migrations of the Balts occurred — first, the Galindae or Galindians towards the east, and later, Eastern Balts towards the west. In the seventh century, Slavic tribes from the Volga regions appeared. By the 13th and 14th centuries, they reached the general area that the present-day Balts and Belarusians inhabit. Many other Eastern and Southern Balts either assimilated with other Balts, or Slavs in the 4th–7th centuries and were gradually slavicized.

Middle Ages

In the 12th and the 13th centuries, internal struggles, as well as invasions by Ruthenians and Poles and later the expansion of the Teutonic Order resulted in an almost complete annihilation of the Galindians, Curonians, and Yotvingians. Gradually Old Prussians became Germanized or some Lithuanized during period from the 15th to the 17th centuries, especially after the Reformation in Prussia. The cultures of the Lithuanians and Latgalians/Latvians survived and became the ancestors of the populations of the modern countries of Latvia and Lithuania.

Old Prussian was closely related to the other extinct Western Baltic languages, Curonian, Galindian and Sudovian. It is more distantly related to the surviving Eastern Baltic languages, Lithuanian and Latvian. Compare the Prussian word seme (zemē),[11] the Latvian zeme, the Lithuanian žemė (land in English).

Baltic peoples

Modern Baltic peoples

See also


  1. Bojtár page 18.
  2. Bojtár page 9.
  3. Adam of Bremen reports that he followed the local use of balticus from baelt ("belt") because the sea stretches to the east "in modum baltei" ("in the manner of a belt"). This is the first reference to "the Baltic or Barbarian Sea, a day's journey from Hamburg. Bojtár cites Bremensis I,60 and IV,10.
  4. Balcia, Abalcia, Abalus, Basilia, Balisia. However, apart from poor transcription, there is known linguistic rule whereby these words, including Balcia, might become “Baltia.”
  5. Latvian: balti; Lithuanian: baltai; Latgalian: bolti, lit. "white".
  6. Bojtár page 10.
  7. Butler, Ralph (1919). The New Eastern Europe. London: Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 3, 21, 22, 23, 24.
  8. Schmalstieg, William R. (Fall 1987). "A. Sabaliauskas. Mes Baltai (We Balts)". Lituanus. Lituanus Foundation Incorporated. 33 (3). Archived from the original on 7 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-06. Book review.
  9. Bojtár page 11.
  10. Tarasov I. The balts in the Migration Period. P. I. Galindians, pp. 96, 100-112.
  11. Mikkels Klussis. Bāziscas prûsiskai-laîtawiskas wirdeîns per tālaisin laksikis rekreaciônin (Lithuanian version of


English language

  • Bojtár, Endre (1999). Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-963-9116-42-9.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1963). The Balts. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • "Lithuanians". 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica (1 ed.). 1911.

Polish language

  • "Bałtowie". Encyklopedia Internetowa PWN (in Polish). Archived from the original on April 26, 2005. Retrieved May 25, 2005.
  • Antoniewicz, Jerzy; Aleksander Gieysztor (1979). Bałtowie zachodni w V w. p. n. e. – V w. n. e. : terytorium, podstawy gospodarcze i społeczne plemion prusko-jaćwieskich i letto-litewskich (in Polish). Olsztyn-Białystok: Pojezierze. ISBN 83-7002-001-1.
  • Kosman, Marceli (1981). Zmierzch Perkuna czyli ostatni poganie nad Bałtykiem (in Polish). Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza.
  • "Bałtowie". Wielka Encyklopedia PWN (in Polish) (1 ed.). 2001.
  • Okulicz-Kozaryn, Łucja (1983). Życie codzienne Prusów i Jaćwięgów w wiekach średnich (in Polish). Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.
  • Čepiene, Irena (2000). Historia litewskiej kultury etnicznej (in Polish). Kaunas, "Šviesa". ISBN 5-430-02902-5.

Further reading

  • (in Lithuanian) E. Jovaiša, Aisčiai. Kilmė (Aestii. The Origin). Lietuvos edukologijos universiteto leidykla, Vilnius; 2013. ISBN 978-9955-20-779-5
  • (in Lithuanian) E. Jovaiša, Aisčiai. Raida (Aestii. The Evolution). Lietuvos edukologijos universiteto leidykla, Vilnius; 2014. ISBN 9789955209577
  • (in Lithuanian) E. Jovaiša, Aisčiai. Lietuvių ir Lietuvos pradžia (Aestii. The Beginning of Lithuania and Lithuanians). Lietuvos edukologijos universiteto leidykla, Vilnius; 2016. ISBN 9786094710520
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