|c. 5.5 million|
|Regions with significant populations|
| Lithuania 2,563,325|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Slavs (mostly Belarusians, Kashubians and Pomeranians)|
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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.
One of the features of Baltic languages is the number of conservative or archaic features retained. 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. Before him were various ancient places names, such as Balcia, meaning a supposed island in the Baltic Sea.
It should not be surprising that Adam, a speaker of German, might connect Balt- with "Belt", a word he was familiar with. However, lLinguistics has since established that Balt means white, cognate with Polish Biały. Common are Baltic words containing the stem balt-, "white", which may also refer to shallow bodies of water including marshes.
In Germanic languages 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.
In 1845, Georg Heinrich Ferdinand Nesselmann proposed a distinct language group for Latvian, Lithuanian and Old Prussian—Baltic. 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.
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.
It is possible[according to whom?] that around 3,500–2,500 B.C., there was massive migration of peoples representing the Corded Ware culture. They came from the southeast and spread all across Eastern and Central Europe, reaching even southern Finland. It is believed[by whom?] that Corded Ware culture peoples were Indo-European ancestors of many Europeans, including Balts. It is thought[by whom?] that those Indo-European newcomers were quite numerous and in the Eastern Baltic assimilated earlier indigenous cultures (Europidic cultures such as the Narva culture and Neman culture). Over time the new people formed the Baltic peoples and they spread in the area from the Baltic sea in the west to the Volga in the east.
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.
A possible early reference to a Baltic people occurs in 98 CE, when Tacitus names a tribe living near the Baltic Sea (Mare Svebicum) as the Aesti (Aestiorum gentes) and describes them as amber gatherers. However, it is not clear if the Aesti mentioned by Tacitus were: (1) a (now-extinct) Baltic people (possibly synonymous with the Brus/Prūsa), or; (2) a Finno-Ugric people (e.g. modern Estonians). The Aesti appear to have inhabited the Sambian peninsula (in or near the present Kaliningrad Oblast.
Over time, 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 Eastern end of Baltic realm around the 4th century CE, and settled around modern day Moscow, Russia. Finally, according to Slavic chronicles of the time, they warred with Slavs, and perhaps, were defeated and assimilated some time in the 11th to 13th centuries.
Balts became differentiated into Western and Eastern Balts in the late centuries BCE. The eastern Baltic region was inhabited by 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 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 — first, the Galindae or Galindians occurred 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 Belarus inhabit. Many other Eastern and Southern Balts either assimilated with other Balts, or Slavs in the 4th–7th centuries and were gradually slavicized.
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), the Latvian zeme, the Lithuanian žemė (land in English).
Modern Baltic peoples