Thoughts on Barbarians! Why language matters?

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By Amira Chahrazed Chenine (PhD candidate in English Literature, University of Mostaganem, Algeria)

As an Algerian, I was raised and taught to be proud of who I am and of where I come from  – especially because of our long history of resistance. For this reason, within Algerian heritage many consider that the people symbolize resistance to colonial ideologies. Over time, this upbringing has led to a passion for studying the history, literature, and cultural traditions of my nation. Maybe my inquisitive nature has always driven me to find a myriad of stories and events about my own culture, as well as other cultures. While one should always be proud of one’s heritage, this does not preclude us from appreciating the universal aspects of humanity that are shared by all communities world-wide.

However, the more history I learn, the clearer my knowledge of how history is passed down through the generations becomes—at least, of some of history’s nuanced and conflicted arbitrary nature. And it’s here where past histories align with what is happening in our present culture. Consequently, in recent months, I have been examining postmodern perceptions of historical narratives and as I delve more deeply into my studies, I have developed an increasing skepticism about the way certain aspects of history have been and continue to be interpreted.

In keeping with many other researchers with African heritage, I have observed how my identity has been tarnished in some ways across the globe by the persistence of postcolonial narratives, both inside and outside the continent, perpetuating falsehoods, and stereotypes about who I am. As a North African woman, the moment I talk to people from other countries, listen to them on Social Media, TV or read what they write about us in their books, the perspectives conveyed make me realize that not everyone is as proud as I am of this land and its cultures – Algeria, and the continent of Africa more broadly – that I am privileged to refer to as home. 

I would love to talk to you about how the world now and back then viewed some civilizations, before I explore the main reason why I had to put my thoughts into words.     

 Civilizations around the world have gone through a long history that has never been immune to radical transformations. Some civilizations are still viewed as the most influential civilizations up to date. Despite the scarcely mentioned legacy of a bloody, violent, ruthless, and immoral conduct, the Roman and Greek civilizations, on which Western rationality was founded, were and still are considered as models of sophisticated, educated, prosperous, and powerful civilizations. Only tribal societies such as the Celtic, Germanic, Iberians, Thracians, Illyrians, and Sarmatians, as well as the Amazigh to name few are still referred to be barbaric and irrational, which implies uncivilized, uneducated, strange, exotic, and unpolished.  Every group that did not belong to the dominant culture, social class, or system would be considered foreign if not primitive. Most French historians referred to the local Algerian Amazigh as Berber in French pronunciation. The label in Arabic language means “Ibn El Bar” “the Sons of the wilderness” “The explorers of the wild.”. This label demonstrates the lifestyle of these groups that depended on no hierarchy, whereby every member is of equal importance.  They are characterized by their prideful nature, self-reliance, love of hunting, exploration and self-determination or resistance which is translated in the Roman-Greek beliefs as disobedient strong-headed half humans… sarcastically!     

I belong to the Hilalite (Banu-Hilal) Arab tribe and  I am not a member of an indigenous tribe; however, I really know what it means to be one because its members were and still the most prideful freedom lovers. Tribes are different in terms of structure, language and culture, but they share one trait which is determination of preserving heritage and embracing freedom. 

One day while watching the news on a French TV channel. I heard about the Charlie Hebdo attack that the TV announcer described as the most brutal BARBARIC attack.

Epiphany! Stroke me hard as a thunder storm. BAR …. WHAT? 

I have never thought of it as an actual French or English word. It appeared later that it was a whole adjective. By the feeling of a naïve literature student, I felt offended, even before undertaking any research to check whether my doubts were correct, or not. In my view, it is important not to dismiss one’s gut feelings, especially those that bring such discomfort. So, as I searched, I discovered much more about this term and its modern usage.

Nowadays, modern language gives people the freedom and the audacity to use “Barbarian” pejoratively as an insult. We would simply hear people denounce a terroristic act or a crime saying “Oh! This was such a BARBARIC attack!” “The attackers vandalized the area!” However, it is never heard  that someone says     “Oh! I need a shower otherwise I will smell like a Roman person.”. The latter stems from the fact that Romans used urine to wash their clothes, according to The World’s History Encyclopedia. The point is that anyone reading this historical information will not bother to verify what is the science behind washing clothes with urine. The immediate reaction might be similar to the reaction of someone reading that Barbarian tribes were uncivilized. Would they bother to read why those tribes are referred to as uncivilized?  First impression is what dominates the collective behaviour. For anyone knowing this, Barbarian is Barbarian no matter what the fact might be. Oddly enough, while searching for reasons behind Romans using human discharge in washing clothes, I found this research paper by Michael Witty (2016) entitled “Ancient Roman Urine Chemistry” and it seems that someone is invested in learning the science behind that choice; however, little is written about the nature of the Barbarian tribe around the world generally and in North Africa specifically from an anthropological perspective and without bias postcolonial discourse. 

Shocking?

I invite you to compare and contrast both statements to determine for yourself the implicit biases. From my perspective, I doubt many in the West would consider using the word ‘Roman’ as an insult, but may unwittingly use the word Barbaric without thinking that some people somewhere actually introduce themselves by saying“Hello, I am Gaia. I am Algerian BERBER (French word for Barbarian Amazigh)”. 

Would anyone use the name of someone’s father to insult their rivals? Sounds ridiculous? Then why would be Barbaric normalized this way? 

The Barbarian tribes had a unique lifestyle that depended on war and hunting. It is the circumstances, the weather and the environment that made people adapt and seek means of survival that turned later on to a culture and tradition in the modern day. We cannot doom any tribe because of their nature and judge them by our modern understanding of society structure. In the past, if someone approached the territory of such tribes, tried to impose a new system, a new language, new traditions such as the Roman expansion movement attempted to do, they would definitely resist them and consider them as intruders (which is natural). One cannot expect those tribes to negotiate their freedom inside an office.  Sadly, there was not anything such as the United Nations back then… only spears, arrows and bows that spoke the perfect language. 

I perceive the use as BARBARIC as a misrepresentation of cultural minorities through popular culture and media. We are still bound to those cultural groups by blood, shared history and culture as we can never get past any humiliating that tends to shame us for our origins.

Although the term has lost its significance through time and became a mere adjective for those who use it frequently, it still means something deeper than just an adjective to the people of that belonging.  Bottom line is that minding one’s language is a skill. 

Bio:

Amira Chahrazad Chenine is a Ph.D. researcher in British Contemporary Literature. Interested in Quantum Fiction, Neo-Victorian Literature and Historiographic Metafiction besides research in education, critical thinking skills and educational technology. English Teacher and former Access Microscholarship Instructor. A published Novelist of Haqibatu E-shak. 

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