The word Balkan comes from Ottoman Turkish balkan 'chain of wooded mountains'; related words are also found in other Turkic languages. The origin of the Turkic word is obscure; it may be related to Persian bālk 'mud', and the Turkish suffix an 'swampy forest' or Persian balā-khāna 'big high house'.
Classical antiquity and the early Middle Ages
From classical antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Balkan Mountains were called by the local Thracian name Haemus. According to Greek mythology, the Thracian king Haemus was turned into a mountain by Zeus as a punishment and the mountain has remained with his name. A reverse name scheme has also been suggested. D. Dechev considers that Haemus (Αἷμος) is derived from a Thracian word *saimon, 'mountain ridge'. A third possibility is that "Haemus" (Αἵμος) derives from the Greek word "haema" (αἷμα) meaning 'blood'. The myth relates to a fight between Zeus and the monster/titan Typhon. Zeus injured Typhon with a thunder bolt and Typhon's blood fell on the mountains, from which they got their name.
Late Middle Ages and Ottoman period
The earliest mention of the name appears in an early 14th-century Arab map, in which the Haemus mountains are referred to as Balkan. The first attested time the name "Balkan" was used in the West for the mountain range in Bulgaria was in a letter sent in 1490 to Pope Innocent VIII by Buonaccorsi Callimaco, an Italian humanist, writer and diplomat. The Ottomans first mention it in a document dated from 1565. There has been no other documented usage of the word to refer to the region before that, although other Turkic tribes had already settled in or were passing through the Peninsula. There is also a claim about an earlier Bulgar Turkic origin of the word popular in Bulgaria, however it is only an unscholarly assertion. The word was used by the Ottomans in Rumelia in its general meaning of mountain, as in Kod̲j̲a-Balkan, Čatal-Balkan, and Ungurus-Balkani̊, but especially it was applied to the Haemus mountain. The name is still preserved in Central Asia with the Balkan Daglary (Balkan Mountains) and the Balkan Province of Turkmenistan. English traveler John Morritt introduced this term into the English literature at the end of the 18th-century, and other authors started applying the name to the wider area between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. The concept of the "Balkans" was created by the German geographer August Zeune in 1808. During the 1820s, "Balkan became the preferred although not yet exclusive term alongside Haemus among British travelers... Among Russian travelers not so burdened by classical toponymy, Balkan was the preferred term."
Evolution of meaning
As time passed, the term gradually acquired political connotations far from its initial geographic meaning, arising from political changes from the late 19th century to the creation of post–World War I Yugoslavia (initially the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). Zeune's intention was to have a geographical parallel term to the Italic and Iberian Peninsula, and seemingly nothing more. The gradually acquired political connotations are newer and, to a large extent, due to oscillating political circumstances.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia beginning in June 1991, the term "Balkans" again acquired a negative meaning, especially in Croatia and Slovenia, even in casual usage (see Balkanization).
In part due to the historical and political connotations of the term "Balkans", especially since the military conflicts of the 1990s, the term "Southeast Europe" is becoming increasingly popular even though it literally refers to a much larger area and thus is less precise. A European Union initiative of 1999 is called the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and the online newspaper Balkan Times renamed itself Southeast European Times in 2003.
In the languages of the region, the peninsula is known as:
- Slavic languages:
- Bulgarian: Балкански полуостров, transliterated: Balkanski poluostrov
- Macedonian: Балкански Полуостров, transliterated: Balkanski Poluostrov
- Serbian: Балканско полуострво / Balkansko poluostrvo
- Croatian: Balkanski poluotok
- Slovene: Balkanski polotok
- Bosnian: Balkansko poluostrvo / Балканско полуострво
- Romance languages:
- Turkic Languages:
- Turkish: Balkan Yarımadası or Balkanlar
- Other languages:
- Albanian: Gadishulli Ballkanik and Siujdhesa e Ballkanit
- Greek: Βαλκανική χερσόνησος, transliterated: Valkaniki chersonisos