1: a person from an alien land, culture, or group believed to be inferior, uncivilized, or violent — used chiefly in historical references

2: a barbarous person, a rude, crude, brutal, cruel person (1300s)

Barbarians can be members of any nation judged by some to be less civilized or orderly, such as a tribal society, primitive nomads, or social class (such as bandits) both within and outside one’s own nation. Alternatively, they may be romanticized as noble savages.

The term originates from ancient Greece, where the term was applied to all those who did not speak Greek and follow classical Greek customs. Later, the Byzantine Greeks used it for the Turks in a clearly pejorative manner. In Ancient China, references to barbarians go back as far as the Shang Dynasty. The earliest form of the word is written in Linear B syllabic script of Mycenaean Greece.

There was never a single united barbarian group, and many of the different tribes, such as  Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Huns, Picts, and many more, shifted alliances over the years or fought alongside Roman forces against other barbarian armies.

According to Greek writers, the word was created because the language outsiders spoke sounded to Greeks like gibberish represented by the sounds “”.

A word “barbara-” is also found in the Sanskrit of ancient India, with the primary meaning of “stammering” implying someone with an unfamiliar language. A number of scholars have argued that the “bar-bar” in the word “barbarian” may be an attempt to imitate a stammering voice. In Aramaic, Old Persian and Arabic context, the root refers to “babble confusedly.” Greek-speakers readily conflated speaking poorly with stupidity.

Greek attitudes towards “barbarians” developed in parallel with the growth of chattel slavery, especially in Athens. Slave-ownership was no longer the preserve of the rich: all but the poorest of Athenian households came to have slaves in order to supplement the work of their free members.

From classical origins the Hellenic stereotype of barbarism evolved: barbarians are like children, unable to speak or reason properly, cowardly, effeminate, luxurious, cruel, unable to control their appetites and desires, politically unable to govern themselves. Writers voiced these stereotypes with much shrillness.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that the name Barbary, once used to describe North Africa, is derived from the region’s Berber inhabitants, not from bárbaros.

The Chinese, by vilifying and depreciating non-Chinese groups, depicted them as somewhat less than human, justified conquering such peoples and taking their lands. The purpose of the Great Wall of China was to stop “barbarians” from crossing the northern border of China. The British, and later the European colonial settlers of the United States, did the same thing by referring to Native Americans as “savages.”

Modern popular culture contains such fantasy barbarians as Conan the Barbarian. In such fantasy, the negative connotations are often inverted. For example, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932), is clearly slanted to imply that the kingdom greatly benefited by power passing from a decadent and tyrannical hereditary monarch to a strong and vigorous Barbarian usurper.

My second name is Barbara. Hmm. What do you suppose that means?

  One thought on “barbarian

  1. Leanne Taylor
    June 13, 2021 at 11:21 am

    No idea what that means. Maybe just that your parents liked the name. :-))

    Your research and writing, as always, are great!
    Thank you!

    I wondered if there’s a connection between “barbar” and “barber”. Did a search, but no answer.

    Also recalled that the word “barba” in Spanish is “beard”.
    Were beards considered barbaric by some people? Or maybe not …

    Back to you, word sleuth! :-)) :-))

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 13, 2021 at 12:06 pm

      I checked a “baby name” reference book, and it says Barbara means “stranger.” Hmm. Not that far off, is it? As to “barba” I have no idea, but I’ll add it to my list!


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