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.


  1. “Bar bar bar” – that’s exactly how we sound to those who don’t speak our language, and in this case we’re all barbarians. Thank God there are translators who try to mitigate the problem.
    By the way, when different peoples were building Babilon Tower (before that terrible calamity) – what language did they speak?

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  5. The Greek word for barbarian had many meanings. It meant uncultured in terms of the Macedonians and Spartans. It meant foreigner in terms of the non Greeks. Athens would call Sparta and Macedonia barbarians because they were brutish and uncultured compared to the Athenians.

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