Barbarian - Etymology - Semantics


The Oxford English Dictionary defines five meanings of the noun barbarian, including an obsolete Barbary usage.

  • 1. etymologically, A foreigner, one whose language and customs differ from the speaker's.
  • 2. Hist. a. One not a Greek. b. One living outside the pale of the Roman empire and its civilization, applied especially to the northern nations that overthrew them. c. One outside the pale of Christian civilization. d. With the Italians of the Renascence: One of a nation outside of Italy.
  • 3. A rude, wild, uncivilized person. b. Sometimes distinguished from savage (perh. with a glance at 2). c. Applied by the Chinese contemptuously to foreigners.
  • 4. An uncultured person, or one who has no sympathy with literary culture.
  • 5. A native of Barbary. Obs. †b. A Barbary horse. Obs.

The OED barbarous entry summarizes the semantic history. "The sense-development in ancient times was (with the Greeks) ‘foreign, non-Hellenic,’ later ‘outlandish, rude, brutal’; (with the Romans) ‘not Latin nor Greek,’ then ‘pertaining to those outside the Roman empire’; hence ‘uncivilized, uncultured,’ and later ‘non-Christian,’ whence ‘Saracen, heathen’; and generally ‘savage, rude, savagely cruel, inhuman.’"

Going against scholarly tradition, the historian Christopher I. Beckwith hypothesizes that "barbarian" only properly refers to Greco-Roman contexts and should not be used for Central Eurasian peoples. He summarizes, "the word barbarian embodies a complex European cultural construct, a generic pejorative term for a 'powerful foreigner with uncouth, uncivilized, nonurban culture who was militarily skilled and somewhat heroic, but inclines to violence and cruelty' – yet not a 'savage' or a 'wild man'." Beckwith also criticizes the Chinese language, which has several exonyms commonly translated as "barbarian" (see below). "There is also no single native word for "foreigner", no matter how pejorative, which includes the complex of the notions 'inability to speak Chinese', 'militarily skilled', 'fierce/cruel to enemies', and 'non-Chinese in culture'." However, the above OED entry controverts both Beckwith's complex barbarian definition and his claim that Chinese lacks "barbarian" words. Definition 3c, "Applied by the Chinese contemptuously to foreigners", cites the Treaty of Tientsin prohibiting the Chinese from calling the British "Yi" 夷 "barbarians." Linguistics differentiates between objective description of language usages and subjective prescription of which usages are considered proper or politically correct. Modern dictionaries like the OED descriptively record how English is used; individuals like Beckwith prescriptively opine how it should be used.

Read more about this topic:  Barbarian, Etymology

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