2013-02-06 - What is a barbarian? An etymological analysis.
"Barbarian" or "βάρβαρος"; one of the most ambiguous terms in ancient history. Still today, many authors pressupose its meaning, which leads to great missunderstandings. It is about time we take a close look on what it actually meant in ancient Greece.

Our main source will be Hesychius of Alexandria, the Greek lexicographer whose work has been of great importance in the field of historical linguistics.

βάρβαροι· οἱ ἀπαίδευτοι, barbarians, the uneducated he says.  Apparently, this is the reason why we today may use the term to denote "uncivilized behaviours".

βαρβαρισμός· παράτονος διάλεκτος, barbarism, a bad sounding dialect he adds. Here the term is brought into relation to speech, being a product of the Proto-Indo-European word *barbar "unintelligible speech". However, it is obvious by its definition that this speech is not necessarely a different language, hence διάλεκτος (dialect) is used.

βάρβαρα· ἀσύνετα. ἄτακτα, barbarously, inexpedient, naughty. Again, the term falls into the category of behaviours, being reminiscent of its modern usage.

and last he adds...

βαρβαρόφωνοι· οἱ Ἠλεῖοι καὶ οἱ Κᾶρες, ὡς τραχύφωνοι καὶ ἀσαφῆ τὴν φωνὴν ἔχοντες, barbarophones, the Eleians and the Carians, for having a harsch and uncertain speech. This is the essence ambiguity, since he makes it clear that the term might be used for Greeks (in this case the Eleians), as well as non-Greeks (the Carians). The Eleians were speaking a dialect of Greek, that was probably very difficult to understand by other Greeks. The Carians, were in several occasions mentioned as speaking a very strange, non-Greek language.


The term served three different purposes:
  • To describe an uncivilized or uneducated person (Greek or foreign) - by urban Greek standards
  • Someone difficult/hard/impossible to understand when speaking (a Greek dialect or a foreign language)
  • A foreigner - when the term is not used against other Greeks