Barbarians and false etymology…?

Strabo in his “Geography” wrote an interesting passage purporting to give us an etymology of the word “barbarian” or “barbaros” as the Greeks would have it (found in book 14, section 28). Strabo says that it is onomatopoeia for some of the harsh manners of speaking found (ironically) among the Greeks. Strabo cites a bunch of Greek words to illustrate this sort of harsh speaking.

People seem to cite this particular explanation (whether they realize it is Strabo or not) as THE explanation for it, but it  does not answer where exactly the word comes from. But I was wondering if perhaps it could be explained in another way, that most people might not even consider.

First of all, there is a Sanskrit word “barbara” which means “stammer.” This would be found then in the languages of ancient India, maybe hinting at a Near-Eastern origin for the word. Secondly, I noticed that Old Persian builds its words off of sounds like “ba” “da” “ta” “ra” and the like. A word with repeating syllables like “ba” could easily inspire someone to come up with the word “barbaros.”

For example, “ba-ga” is the Old Persian word for “god” or “va-ca-ba-ra” which means “shield-bearer.” I don’t yet know enough words in Old Persian to offer more examples.

It seems reasonable to infer that this language, like all languages, was built on a similar predecessor, and that predecessor was not all that different from Old Persian. Old Persian dates to between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and Strabo lived between 65BC and 23AD. The word “barbaros” was commonly used by the time of Herodotus, writing around the time of the Persian wars, which took place from 499-449 BC. Exposure to Persians or earlier peoples such as the Assyrians could have easily taken place well before then, leading to the invention of the term “barbaros.”

Who knows? I’m not sure anyone has come up with a definitive answer to the question of where that word comes from. I’m beginning to develop my own theory about it, which may require a lot more research before I can speak more certainly.




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