When it comes to the great migrations into the former Roman Empire, there’s one term that’s sure to lead to shouting if you use it around your average Visigoth or Vandal. It’s the b-word: “barbarian.”
Why is that? Barbarian comes from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος, which mocks the “ba-ba-ba” sound the Greeks used to describe non-Greek speech. (Need a modern equivalent? Think of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef.) The Romans, who as Latin speakers were definitely barbarians in Greek eyes, borrowed the term, turning it into barbarus. For both the Romans and the Greeks, it was only a short step to go from barbarian meaning “foreigner” to barbarian meaning “uncivilized, or just plain mean.” When the word enters English in the sixteenth century (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) it tends to mean someone both foreign and nasty (it’s not a word you use to describe nice, civilized foreigners). But the first dictionary definition – the Lexicons of Early Modern English database says it appears in Edmund Coote’s 1596 dictionary The English School-master – just means “a rude person.”
So it’s hardly fair to call all the peoples who migrated into the former Roman Empire barbarians just because they didn’t happen to speak Latin or Greek. Especially when the word now mostly means “a rude, wild, uncivilized person” (OED again).
Eagle-eyed readers will note, though, that I do use the word barbarian on the same page as I talk about the migrations. Just because every migrant wasn’t a “barbarian,” doesn’t mean that there wasn’t barbarism going on during the migrations. There was no shortage of wars, or violence. And the people who sacked Rome – they certainly were barbarians. Because of what they destroyed, not because they couldn’t speak Greek.