The word “barbarian” originated in ancient Greece, and was initially used to describe all non-Greek-speaking peoples, including Persians, Egyptians, Medes and Phoenicians. The ancient Greek word “bárbaros,” from which it derives, meant “babbler,” and was onomatopoeic: In the Greek ear, speakers of a foreign tongue made unintelligible sounds (“bar bar bar”). Similar words exist in other Indo-European languages, including the Sanskrit “barbara,” which means “stammering.”
It was the ancient Romans, who by the original definition were barbarians themselves, who first transformed the use of the term. Late in the Roman Empire, the word “barbarian” came to refer to all foreigners who lacked Greek and Roman traditions, especially the various tribes and armies putting pressure on Rome’s borders. There was never a single united barbarian group, and many of the different tribes–including Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Huns, Picts and many more–shifted alliances over the years or fought alongside Roman forces against other barbarian armies. Later scholars would expand on this use of the word when writing about attacks on cultures considered “civilizations” (be it ancient China or ancient Rome) by external enemies who don’t share that civilization’s traditions or structure.
Today, the adjective “barbaric” is most commonly used to describe an act that is either brutal or cruel to the point of savagery or primitive and uncivilized (or all of the above) while a “barbarian” is a person who commits such acts or displays such characteristics. This more general–and explicitly negative–definition, when compared with either the Greek or Roman sense of the word, illustrates clearly just how far “barbarian” has been removed from its ancient roots.
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