Barbarian - Etymology

Etymology

The Ancient Greek word βάρβαρος barbaros, "barbarian", was an antonym for πολίτης politis, "citizen", from polis "city-state". The sound of barbaros onomatopoetically evokes the image of babbling (a person speaking a non-Greek language). The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek pa-pa-ro, written in Linear B syllabic script.

The Greeks used the term as they encountered scores of different foreign cultures, including the Egyptians, Persians, Medes, Celts, Germanic peoples, Phoenicians, Etruscans and Carthaginians. In fact, it became a common term to refer to all foreigners. However in various occasions, the term was also used by Greeks, especially the Athenians, to deride other Greek tribes and states (such as Epirotes, Eleans, Macedonians and Aeolic-speakers) in a pejorative and politically motivated manner. Of course, the term also carried a cultural dimension to its dual meaning. The verb βαρβαρίζειν (barbarízein) in ancient Greek meant imitating the linguistic sounds non-Greeks made or making grammatical errors in Greek.

Plato (Statesman 262de) rejected the Greek–barbarian dichotomy as a logical absurdity on just such grounds: dividing the world into Greeks and non-Greeks told one nothing about the second group. In Homer's works, the term appeared only once (Iliad 2.867), in the form βαρβαρόφωνος (barbarophonos) ("of incomprehensible speech"), used of the Carians fighting for Troy during the Trojan War. In general, the concept of barbaros did not figure largely in archaic literature before the 5th century BCE. Still it has been suggested that "barbarophonoi" in the Iliad signifies not those who spoke a non-Greek language but simply those who spoke Greek badly.

Another possibility of "barbarian's" etymology may come from barba, which means beard. It is thought that perhaps barbarians were noted by the Greeks as having excessive hair and not maintaining a barbered appearance, and hence, were labeled accordingly.

A change occurred in the connotations of the word after the Greco-Persian Wars in the first half of the 5th century BCE. Here a hasty coalition of Greeks defeated the vast Achaemenid Empire. Indeed in the Greek of this period 'barbarian' is often used expressly to mean Persian.

Greek barbaros was the etymological source for many cognate words meaning "barbarian", including English barbarian, which was first recorded in 16th-century Middle English.

The term Tartar or Tatar, which is derived from the name of the Tatar people, means a savage, intractable person, or ill-tempered person. The Tatars were any of the various Mongolian/Turkish tribes who overran Asia and much of eastern Europe in the Middle Ages under the leadership of Genghis Khan.

The root 'barbar' (varvar) is also found in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The Greek word barbarikos formed on barbaros is related to Sanskrit barbaras (stammering).

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