Barbarism (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Marble relief representing a barbarian fighting against a Roman soldier (2nd century A.D.). (DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Broadly defined, barbarism refers to an incorrect use of language. More specifically, a barbarism is a word considered "improper" because it combines elements from different languages. Adjective: barbarous. Also known as barbarolexis. "The term barbarism," says Maria Boletsi, "is associated with unintelligibility, lack of understanding, and mis- or noncommunication" (Barbarism and Its Discontents, 2013).

Examples and Observations

  • "The term 'barbarism' is associated with unintelligibility, lack of understanding, and mis- or noncommunication. These associations can also be extracted from the etymology of barbarian: in ancient Greek, the word barbaros imitates the incomprehensible sounds of the language of foreign peoples, sounding like 'bar bar.' The foreign sound of the other is dismissed as noise and therefore as not worth engaging. . . . Those tagged as 'barbarians' cannot speak out and question their barbarian status because their language is not even understood or deemed worthy of understanding."
    (Maria Boletsi, Barbarism and Its Discontents. Stanford University Press, 2013)
  • The Barbarous Tongue
    "Europe had long practice in attaching the epithet 'barbarous' to 'tongue' and, through that pairing, making language a key term in defining 'barbarism.' . . . Barbarism itself, etymologically rooted in barbaros, the babbling outsider unable to speak Greek, is 'a concept grounded in linguistic difference' . . ..

    "The concept of the 'barbarous tongue' presupposes, at a stroke, a hierarchy of both languages and societies. There are, it suggests, civil societies with civil tongues and barbarian societies with barbarous tongues. The connection is seen as causal. The belief that civil tongues begot civil societies was widely accepted from antiquity onwards."
    (Patricia Palmer, Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Examples of Barbarisms
    "Barbarisms include a number of different things. For example, they may be foreign expressions deemed unnecessary. Such expressions are regarded as fully acceptable if there is not a shorter and clearer English way to the meaning or if the foreign terms are somehow especially appropriate to the field of discourse (glasnost, Ostpolitik). Quand même for anyhow or bien entendu for of course, in contrast, seem to be pretentious (Burchfield 1996). But who is to draw the line in matters of taste and propriety? Other examples of 'barbarisms' are archaisms, regional dialect words, slang, cant and technical or scientific jargon. In all of these cases the same questions ultimately arise. A skilled writer can use any of these 'barbarisms' to good effect, just as avoiding them does not make a bad writer any better."
    (Stephan Gramley and Kurt-Michael Pätzold, A Survey of Modern English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004)
  • Television
    - "The first name proposed for [television] appears to have been televista . . .. Television proved much more durable, although for many decades it was widely condemned by purists for being a 'hybrid' word--tele- being ultimately of Greek origin and vision- of Latin origin."
    (John Ayto, Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words That Shaped Our Age. Oxford University Press, 2006)

    - "'Television' is one of the most recent offspring of linguistic miscegenation."
    (Leslie A. White, The Science of Culture, 1949)
  • Fowler on Barbarisms
    "That barbarisms exist is a pity. To expend much energy on denouncing those that do exist is a waste."
    (H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, rev. by Ernest Gowers. Oxford University Press, 1965)
  • George Puttenham on Barbarisms (1589)
    "The foulest vice in language is to speake barbarously: this terme grew by the great pride of the Greekes and Latines, when they were dominatours of the world, reckoning no language so sweete and civill as their owne and that all nations beside them selves were rude and uncivill, which they called barbarous: So as when any straunge word not of the natural Greeke or Latin was spoken in the old time they called it barbarisme, or when any of their owne naturall wordes were sounded and pronounced with straunge and ill shapen accents, or written by wrong orthographie as he that would say with us in England, a dousand for a thousand, isterday for yesterday, as commonly the Dutch and French people do, they said it was barbarously spoken."
    (George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589)