Saturday, 28 April 2018

To get white

In my post about Russian steam baths called "banya" I postulated that this type of steam bath is the origin of the Finnish and Scandinavian saunas.

Now here is something else interesting about these Slavic steam baths: their name.

In Slavic languages, the word "banya" or "banja" as a noun can mean a steam bath, mineral water spa, bathroom, bathtub, and as a verb "banjati se" it means washing of ones body in general.

The etymology of the word banja is very interesting.

"Banja" (act of bathing, bathing place)
From Proto-Slavic "*banja" (bath)
From Vulgar Latin "*bānea", "*banniu" (bath)
From Latin "balneum", "balineum" (bath, bathing place)
From Ancient Greek "βαλανεῖον", "balanion" meaning "bath, bathing room"

The Wiktionary has this to say about the etymology of the Ancient Greek root "βαλανεῖον", "balanion" meaning "bath, bathing room":

"Etymology uncertain. Attempts have been made to connect with βάλανος (balanos, “acorn”), but are semantically unconvincing. Probably Pre-Greek."

So the root for Slavic word "banja" is Vulgar Latin "bānea" which has root in Latin "balneum" which has root in Old Greek "balaneîon" which has no etymology in Greek. Which "Pre-Greek" language does this word, which was first attested in 5th BC Attic dialect of Ancient Greek, come from?

Let me see if I can solve this mystery.


When I was a kid, I was constantly dirty. Me and my brother spent every moment we could out in the fields, forests, swamps, building sites, farmyards, caves... and were usually covered from head to toe in dirt. Which means that every evening we had to wash ourselves from head to toe too. And this is how my mother explained to us what washing is and when and how to wash:

"When do we wash? We wash when we get dirty. How do we know that we are dirty? We know that we are dirty when our skin is not white any more, when it gets dark from mud, or blood or some other kind of dirt. Why do we wash? We wash to remove dirt from our bodies, from our skin and hair. And when do we stop washing? When all the dirt is removed. And how do we know that all the dirt is removed? We know that all the dirt is removed when our skin is white..."

Indoeuropean languages are languages of Indoeruopean people. And Indoeuropean people are white people (R1a, R1b, I1, I2). And for white people, washing is equivalent to "getting white". Clean = White. 

In Serbian "bel", "beli" means white. The word comes from Proto-Slavic "bělъ" meaning "white". From Proto-Indo-European root noun "*bʰēlHs" or "*bʰel-" ‎(“white surface or stain”). Cognates include Lithuanian bãlas, báltas ‎(“white”), Latvian bãls ‎("pale") and balts ‎("white"), Albanian bal, balo (dog or goat with a white spot on the forehead), Old Armenian բալ ‎(bal, “fog”), Sanskrit भाल ‎(bhāla, “splendour”).

These Latvian cognates are very interesting.

The word "balts" meaning "white" comes from an unattested verb "*balt" ‎(“to become white”) of which "balts" originally was the past participle form. Now in South Slavic languages "belit, beliti, belet, beleti" means "to make white, to become white, to fade". So the "unattested" root verb exists in Slavic languages, showing that the Latvian words are most probably borrowing from Slavic languages.

The word "bals" meaning "pale" was originally a parallel form to an older adjective "*bals" which disappeared but left related terms like the verbs "balot, balēt" to bleach, to fade,"balināt" to whiten, to blanch. In South Slavic languages "bel se, beli se" means it's white, it shines (because it's white), "belet, beleti" means to whiten, to fade. So again I believe that these words are borrowings from Slavic languages.

These Latvian words show that white and pale originally meant one and the same thing.

This is someone with "pale" skin, often seen in Northern Europe.


For all intents and purposes you can call this skin white. And in Latvian "baltā rase"‎ means white (= Caucasian) race. In South Slavic languages this would be "bela, belata rasa".

Latvians have also preserved the original meaning of the word "bel" (white) that we are interested in in this article, which is "bel" (white) = clean.

"uzvilkt sestdienā baltu veļu"‎ ― to wear white linen (clean clothes) on Saturday

Now as I already said, when I was a kid and when I got dirty, I was sent to wash myself. After finishing the washing, and getting white, I would come out of the bath to the comments from my mother that I was now "beautiful".

This link between being clean, being white and being beautiful is very strong in Serbian (and in general Slavic) culture.

In Serbian folk poetry, beauty is always associated with white skin. Someone beautiful has "belo lice" (white face) and "belo grlo" (white neck). 



And now let's have a look at the Ancient Greek word "βαλανεῖον", "balanion" meaning "bath, bathing room" which is supposed to be the root of the Slavic word "banja" meaning "bath, bathing".  

The Wiktionary says that the word "βαλανεῖον" has "uncertain etymology" and that the word is "probably Pre-Greek".

Now in my post about Slavic wash houses called "banja" I talked about the fact that the early Greek records mock the Slavs as "the people who wash in banjas every day".

An early description of the banya comes from the East Slavic Primary Chronicle of 1113. According to the Chronicle, or as it was called by its authors, The Tale of Bygone Years, the Apostle Andrew visited the territories that were later to become Russia and Ukraine during his visit to the Greek colonies on the Black Sea. The belief was held that Andrew crossed through East Slavic lands from the mouth of the Dnieper River, past the hills on which Kiev would later be founded, and went as far north as the ancient city of Novgorod. He had this to say about the Slavic bathing customs:

"Wondrous to relate," said he, "I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

And what happens when the people who belong to the white Indoeuropean race, like Slavs, wash themselves? They get white. And in Slavic Indoeuropean languages the word for white is "bel". So the process of washing is the process of getting white. So is it possible that the wash house, bath, bathing room was originally seen as the place where you "get clean, get white"? And is it possible then that the word used for such place would have word for white in it? Like "bel" meaning white and "bele(a)n" meaning "made white". I believe so. 

So the Ancient Greek βαλανεῖον meaning "bath, bathing room, place of bathing" can be broken into: 

βαλαν + εῖον 

βαλαν (bele(a)n) - Pre-Greek, PIE, Slavic verb meaning "made white, whitening". Modern Serbian beljen.
εῖον (eîon) - Ancient-Greek ending meaning "the place of"

Together they give the meaning "the place of whitening, the place of cleaning, the place of washing, bathing"...

So how did this word enter Ancien Greek? 

What do you think about this?

O and by the way. Today's Greek word for bath, bathroom is "λουτρό" (loutro). The word comes from Ancient Greek "λουτρόν" (loutrón) meaning "bath, bathing-place, water used for bathing". 

This Ancient-Greek word is said to come from Proto-Indo-European "*lówh₃trom" meaning "that which is used for washing", which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European "*lewh₃-" meaning "to wash, bathe"... 

Now here is something interesting. Apparently this PIE root has descendants in:

Albanian: laj
Ancient Greek: λούω (loúō), λουτρόν (loutrón)
Italic: *lawaō
Latin: lavō, lābrum (possibly)
Celtic: *lowatrom 
Germanic: *lauþrą, *laugō
Old Armenian: լոգանամ (loganam), լուանամ (luanam)

All meaning "to wash, to bath"

There are no cognates in Slavic languages. 

However in Slavic languages we find the word "lev" meaning "pouring". Which is what we do when we wash. The verb "levati" means "to pour" and the word "levanica" means "libation". And guess what? The Ancient-Greek word λουτρόν (loutrón) which means "bath, bathing-place, water used for bathing" also means "(poetic) libation to the dead"...

Eeee....

2 comments:

  1. Should I even bother to send comments to you? You seldom publish them.

    Lopar/lopata@Croatian: paddle/spade = leverage/levati/libation/lev/lift to pour, launder


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