Beyond Words - Language Blog

Etymology of "Barbarian"

Who is a barbarian? The word barbarian was used originally by the Greeks to refer to any non-Greek: Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Celts, Germans, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Macedonians, Carthaginians, Vikings, Goths – all of these became known as barbarians. The ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (bárbaros) meant “babbler.” To the Greek ear, someone who did not speak the Greek language babbled, producing the onomatopoeic sound “bar bar bar” which became bárbaros, and later barbaria in Latin.

Several other forms exist in Indo-European languages, such as the Sanskrit word barbara, meaning “stammering.” The root word bárbaros has even found its way into the realm of geography as the Barbary Coast, home to the infamous Barbary pirates.