The complexities of a basic word for "barbarian" in Sinitic and neighboring languages

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There are scores of words in Sinitic languages that regularly get translated into English as "barbarian".  One of the most conspicuous and pervasive is hú 胡, which we have often discussed on Language Log, perhaps most extensively and intensively in "The bearded barbarian" (8/26/15), with detailed etymological, orthographical, morphological, and philological notes.

The term came up again more recently in "'Carrot' in Persian, Urdu, Uyghur, Sinitic, Vietnamese, etc." (6/26/20), where we found it as the distinctive modifier of the Sinitic word for "carrot" (húluóbo 胡蘿蔔 / 胡萝卜).

[N.B.:  Several of my most respected colleagues in Chinese Studies do not permit their students to translate hú 胡 or any of the other Sinitic terms for non-Sinitic peoples as "barbarian".]

In reading PRC written materials, one must be wary of all the words in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) that are written with hú 胡, since the character simplification promoted by the communist government has collapsed at least six other traditional characters into this one (see here), the most interesting of which is the first syllable hemimorpheme of the Sinitic word for "butterfly" (húdié 蝴蝶 / 胡蝶), cf., "'Butterfly' words as a source of etymological confusion" (1/28/16).

For the record, here are the pronunciations of hú 胡 in various Sinitic topolects:


The Middle Sinitic reconstruction of hú 胡 is /ɦuo/ and the Old Sinitic reconstruction is

(BaxterSagart): /*[ɡ]ˤa/
(Zhengzhang): /*ɡaː/


The "carrot" post elicited this learned comment by Jongseong Park:

In Korean, 나복 蘿蔔 nabok (or 라복 rabok according to North Korean norms) is an obscure term for white radishes of the type sometimes known as daikon, which is normally called 무 mu in Korean. I had never seen the term before and am confident that most Koreans are not familiar with it either; from a quick search I see that it is glossed as an older term from the Joseon period (1392–1910) or as the name used in traditional Korean medicine.

The Korean word for carrot is 당근 danggeun. Interestingly, 표준국어대사전 Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon ("The Great Dictionary of Standard Korean") does not give any Chinese characters for this term, although the form looks obviously Sino-Korean. Other sources give the Chinese characters as 唐根, literally "Tang (as in the dynasty) root".

The Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon lists 호나복 胡蘿蔔 honabok ("barbarian nabok"), 홍나복 紅蘿蔔 hongnabok ("red nabok"), and 홍당무 紅唐무 hongdangmu ("red Tang mu") as synonyms, though the last term can also refer to radishes (i.e. the type familiar to most English speakers) or beetroot. Again, I had never heard the terms honabok or hongnabok before.

Hongdangmu is often used in the metaphorical sense, to describe someone blushing, for instance. Growing up I understood it as a synonym for danggeun, the usual word for carrot, and only later found out that it could also refer to radishes or beetroot.

The element 당 唐 dang ("Tang") points to carrots coming into Korea via China. The element 호 胡 ho ("barbarian") also appears in a lot of terms referring to what are considered Chinese imports, such as 호떡 hotteok (a type of sweet pancake that is a popular street food in Korea, literally "barbarian rice cake") or 호밀 homil (rye, literally "barbarian wheat").

Interestingly, pepper is 후추 huchu in Korean and is from Sinitic 胡椒, which in regular Sino-Korean would be hocho. The medical treatise 諺解胎産集要 언해태산집요 Eonhae Taesan Jibyo (1608) writes it as 호쵸 hochyo. So in this latter case, the element ho is actually present in the etymon rather than being the result of the Korean naming strategy for things coming via China. The same for 호두 hodu "walnut", deriving regularly from earlier Sino-Korean 胡桃 hodo as a result of the term being nativized and no longer being felt as Sino-Korean. Since 胡蘿蔔 is already present in Sinitic, honabok would be another such case. However, while the use of the element ho in Korean and 胡 in Sinitic are obviously parallel, many of the common examples of the former seem to be native derivations rather than terms loaned from Sinitic.

Even the original form of hú 胡, before it was picked up by the character simplifiers to represent at least six other different morphemes, was used for three basic meanings:

1. "dewlap"
A derivative is (“beard”) (Schuessler, 2007).
2. "steppe nomads"
Etymology unknown (Schuessler, 2007).
3. interrogative word ("what; why; how")
Cognate with (OC *ɡaːl, “what; where; why; how”), Tibetan ག་ན (ga na, where; how), Tibetan ག་རུ (ga ru, to where) (Schuessler, 2007). See () for more.

As explained in "The bearded barbarian" (8/26/15), 1. and 2. are probably linked, because the massive, full beards of western peoples may have reminded East Asians of dewlaps.  3., on the other hand, would be the borrowing of a substantive to stand for a grammatical particle (in this case an interrogative).


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 7:34 am

    From Si Nae Park:

    The posting made me think of nabak kimchi (radish-based watery kimchi), one of staple dishes growing up.

    This webpage run by the SK government discusses the etymology.

    Pictures of nabak kimchi.

  2. Chris Button said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 8:40 pm

    the massive, full beards of western peoples may have reminded East Asians of dewlaps

    I don't really buy this popular account. It's sort of like the claim that 羌 contains 羊 "sheep" because they were shepherds.

    Personally, I would argue that 胡 really belongs to the word-family headed by 戶 as the flap of a door and its broader semantic field of "covering".

  3. Chris Button said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 9:22 pm

    To be clear, I do think 鬍 "beard" is a semantic extension of 胡 "dewlap", but that came later. The use of 胡 for these western peoples was surely just a transcription of sorts, as pointed out here:

  4. Dara Connolly said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 5:35 am

    Japanese 胡瓜 cucumber

  5. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 12:04 pm

    Another source of "enemy" elements in etymology is given in Edward Sapir’s article in American Anthropologist N.S., 38, 1936: 224-235. "Internal linguistic evidence suggestive of the northern origin of the Navaho".
    Sapir derives the Navajo word for "corn/maize" [na·dán·ʔ] as from an element "in a number of compound nouns referring to plants", with a prefix opaque to modern speakers, but which shows corresponds to forms indicating "enemy": so the word is historically "enemy food".
    The whole article is available at Well worth a read!

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    From Sanping Chen:

    I discussed this issue in my old AOH essay on the Buluoji. [VHM: See below for reference and link.] There is a section "The Xiongnu and the Ethnonym Hu" with some early references. It seems to be accepted that Hu was likely an autonym of the Xiongnu/Hun. The dropping of the terminal -n is common in both Altaic and Chinese languages. As such, the link between Hu and beard is rather farfetched because the term was applied to Central Asians much later. I attach the JSTOR copy of my old article. In particular the section summary:


    We submit that the ethnonym Buluoji/Bulgar may serve as the missing link for the change of the primary meaning of the hu designation, which happened to coincide with the appearance of the Zahu in the Northern dynasties. The fact that Buluoji/Bulgar was the last name for the Zahu was not a mere accident. As we have examined earlier, the evolution of the Zahu included the increasing Caucasian elements in the former Xiongnu groups. With the continued intermixing between the Xiongnu remnants and the Indo-Europeans both native in northern China and from Central Asia, coupled with the westward movement of many such groups, the name Hu acquired in a relatively short time its new primary designation. Besides, this may also have been a harbinger of Central Asia’s turkicization.


    Abstract of the paper:

    The ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity of the Buluoji, an ethnic group in China during the Northern dynasties, is examined to show that it represented the Altaic remnants of the Xiongnu confederation with an Iranic/Caucasian admixture. The author solves an age-old puzzle regarding the name Buluoji which exemplifies the epochal three-way interactions between Chinese, Altaic and Iranic cultures. Evidence suggesting possible connections between the Buluoji and the European Bulgārs is presented, with implications for other issues, particularly the long-hypothesized Xiongnu-Hun equation.

    Author(s): Sanping Chen
    Source: Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Vol. 51, No. 1/2 (1998), pp. 69- 83
    Published by: Akadémiai Kiadó
    Stable URL:

    postscript. The "borrowing 假借" of 胡 as a substitute for 鬍 does not seem to be attested in classical references. See 故訓匯纂 pp.1852-53.

  7. Chau said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 6:03 pm

    Jongseong Park’s comment touched on walnut 胡桃. There is an interesting parallelism in historical development between English wal- and Sinitic 胡. Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about walnut: “Old English walhnutu ‘nut of the walnut tree,’ literally ‘foreign nut,’ from wealh ‘foreign’ + hnutu.” And about Wealh, Walh: "‘Celt, Briton, Welshman, non-Germanic foreigner;’ in Tolkien's definition, ‘common Gmc. name for a man of what we should call Celtic speech,' but also applied in Germanic languages to speakers of Latin.”

    In Sinitic 胡 originally referred to non-Han nationalities living in the north and west of China in ancient times. Then the definition broadened to “non-Han nationalities,” and further to “foreigner” and “foreign”. Therefore, 胡桃 literally means “foreign peach.”

    By the way, as mentioned above, English “nut” comes from OE hnutu (after simplification of the initial cluster hn- to n- and loss of the -u coda). The Taiwanese word for “nut” is hu̍t 核 (literary pronunciation). Interestingly, it can be linked to OE hnutu following similar processes as English (after simplification of the initial cluster hn- to h- and loss of the -u coda). Thus, E. nut and Tw hu̍t can be considered as some sort of “stereo isomers”, English turns hn- to n- whereas Taiwanese turns hn- to h-. (See Sino-Platonic Papers 262 (2016), page 25.)

  8. Chris Button said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 8:28 pm

    I completely agree about the bearded idea being farfetched, but I'm struggling with this:

    It seems to be accepted that Hu was likely an autonym of the Xiongnu/Hun. The dropping of the terminal -n is common in both Altaic and Chinese languages.

    Regardless of the -n, what about their reconstructed forms for the time period under discussion? The implication of the suggestion (and perhaps I'm misreading it) is that "Hu" and "Hun" can be connected based on the similarity in their modern forms, which of course cannot be the case.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 11:43 pm

    From Alan Kennedy:

    The Japanese term nanban ("Southern barbarian") is a widely used art historical term for the paintings that depict Portugese priests and merchants who were among the first Europeans to visit Japan in the 16th century.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    June 30, 2020 @ 4:28 am

    Tom Dawkes, "The whole article is available at Well worth a read!". Thank you. I read the article with considerable interests, being familiar with the author's name but not with his publications, and was intrigued by his use of the word "dialectics". He used the word as I always thought that it would/should be use, until I consulted the OED and found that it has (almost) nothing to do with dialects per se and a very great deal to do with politics (with a small "p"). Is Sapir the only one to use the word in a linguistic context, or have others done so as well, I wonder.

  11. Chris Button said,

    June 30, 2020 @ 5:53 pm

    Japanese 胡瓜 cucumber

    Given some of the previous discussions on LLog around orthography, I'm surprised no-one has yet made a comment about the reading of this compound.

    Its evolution from 黄瓜 "kiuri" into "kyūri" with the long "ū" ("uu") having one of its two "u" moras on 胡 "kyu" and the other on 瓜 "uri" has always felt somewhat counterintuitive to me (despite "uri" being a standard reading). I wonder when 胡 replaced 黄 and why it was "yellow" anyway?

  12. Chris Button said,

    June 30, 2020 @ 6:02 pm

    Actually, with "green" not being lexically distinguished as a color, "yellow" makes sense.

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