Monday, April 28, 2008

History of the Word 'Barbaros'

The English word 'barbarian' has apparent negative connotations. This, however, was not always the case. I shall examine the history of the word, both in terms of linguistics and of meaning.

First, linguistically. My starting point is the Greek word 'barbaros'. This is cognate to the Latin 'balbus blatero'. However, moving backwards, it is cognate to the Old Iranian 'balb'; Sanskrit 'balbalu'; Sumerian 'bar-bar'; and Babylonian 'barbaru'. What can this tell us about the meaning and subsequent deveopment of the Greek word? Take the Sanskrit word 'balbalu'; it means 'to stammer or studder'. The Babylonian 'barbaru' simply means 'foreigner or stranger'. The Greek word, in its original import, did not have a balatently negative connotation; it simply denoted a linguistic difference. Supposedly it was an onomatopoetic word denoting someone whose language just sounded like meaningless babble (incidenctally, our English word 'babble' probably derives from the same origin). The meaning I think is most clear if we pay attention to the Sanskrit 'balbalu'.

The Greek word took on more use and meaning as the 5th Century arrived. The word occurs only once in Homer, in the form of the compound 'barbarophonos'; it is used to describe some allies of the Trojans whose speech was foreign, hence "barbaric". Thus, at this point, the word has no negative connotations per se; it is merely used to denote a linguistic difference. However, after the Persian Wars, the word started to take on pejorative connotations. For example, look at one of Jason's speeches in Euripides' Medea. He states that Medea came from a "barbarian country", and that, as a result of her coming to Greece, she now "understands the workings of law and justice". Presumably, a "barbarian country" would not be the greatest of places in the minds of the Greeks watching the play; in Euripides' characterization it stands in stark contrast to the rule of law and rationality that pervaded the Athenian self-definition.

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