Beware of the Barbarians

Hello,

This week’s word is barbarian and is with thanks to the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast who are still broadcasting their witty and intelligent musings about odd facts every week, now from their individual homes, which can’t be easy. They mentioned the origin of barbarian in a recent episode and it went straight onto my “to investigate” list.

My favourite barbarians

Barbarian entered the English language as an adjective in the mid 1300s to describe somebody or something which was from another nation or culture. Initially there was no negative connotation to this word. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that it came to mean something or somebody uncivilised or savage. I found this surprising as I assumed the word came from Roman times to describe anybody who lived outside the empire. Given that barbarians over-ran Rome a few times in its later, declining, years I assumed the Romans would have seen the barbarians in a negative light.

Looking back further I discovered the word barbarian actually comes from the Greeks, not the Romans. The ancient Greeks had a plural noun barbaroi which meant “all that are not Greek” and was especially applied to the Medes and Persians (both lived in the area now known as Iran). The word arose from a root word barbar which was meant to describe the way the foreign speech of the Persians and Medes sounded to Greek listeners. You know the way background actors in movies sometimes mutter “rhubarb” to make a basic speech noise? Well the Greeks would have thought they were saying “barbar“. Hence the barbaroi.

From barbaroi the word barbaros (foreign, strange, ignorant) arrived in Greek. Basically anybody who didn’t speak Greek was barbaros. Later the ancient Romans, who were technically barbaros themselves, adopted the word as barbarus and applied it to any tribes or nations who weren’t Roman or Greek. This moved to Medieval Latin at barbarinus and Old French as barbarin (which gives us Berber) and by the time it reached English it was spelled barbarian.

Along the way the term has been used to single out foreigners in other times and languages too. In Renaissance Italy it was used to describe any non-Italian and it has been used to translate Chinese words of contempt for foreigners also.

Sadly, so long as groups have a concept of “us” there will always be a concept of “them” and they are often called barbarians, no matter how sophisticated their language and culture.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,067 words in my CampNaNo serial “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Four days of writing to go and it will be launching on Channillo.com on Wednesday 6th of May. It’s been great fun to write and hopefully will be an entertaining read for anybody who has ever wondered what really goes on behind the shelves in the library.

4 thoughts on “Beware of the Barbarians

  1. Janet

    I tend to judge people by their accents, alas. It’s automatic, and truly terrible of me, especially at my advanced age. Perhaps if we all traveled more?

    Reply
    1. wordfoolery Post author

      Ah well in this case it was what they were saying rather than accents, those Greek just couldn’t understand any Persian. Perhaps a few more language classes would have helped? It’s human nature to judge others, sadly. Traveling definitely helps, and sure, another excuse to do that is always welcome, right? Until that’s possible again I’m traveling via the dictionary 🙂

      Reply
  2. Rick Ellrod

    Interesting. I’d heard some of the history, but I hadn’t realized the negative connotation didn’t arrive until the Renaissance. Wonder what term the medievals applied to the Vikings and other savage raiders?

    Reply
    1. wordfoolery Post author

      Good question. In Dublin I know they called them the yellow haired (that’s where one region of Dublin, Fingal, gets its name – via Irish) – so they were marked out by having different coloured hair. My understanding is they were either called Northmen or Danes in England (regardless of whether they came from Denmark, Norway or elsewhere), but I’m sure they had some more negative terms too.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.