The Dorians are almost always simply referenced as just "the Dorians," as they are in the earliest literary mention of them in Odyssey, where they already can be found inhabiting the island of Crete. Herodotus does use the word ethnos with regard to them, from which the English word "ethnic" derives, which appears in the modern concept of ethnic group. It has to be clarified though, that in the ancient Greek language "ethnos" by no means can be translated as "nation" alone, but rather as "tribe", "race" or "people." The Dorians are clearly among the peoples regarded as Graecoi or later Hellenes. They were diverse in way of life and social organization, varying from the populous trade center of the city of Corinth known for its ornate style in art and architecture to the isolationist, military state of Lacedaemon or Sparta. Although peoples belonging to the same tribe, the Dorians, as well as the Aeolians and the Ionians were further subdivided in independent groups often hostile to each other, usually named after the location of their state. And yet all Hellenes knew what localities were Dorian and what not. Dorian states at war could more likely than not (but not always) count on the assistance of other Dorian states. Dorians were distinguished by the Doric Greek dialect and by characteristic social and historical traditions. Accounts vary as to their place of origin. One theory that has never been proven is that they originated in the north, north-eastern mountainous regions of Greece, ancient Macedonia and Epirus, whence obscure circumstances brought them south into the Peloponnese, to certain Aegean islands, Magna Graecia and Crete. Another theory is that they originated from Asia Minor, and that they either immigrated through the northeast of Greece and settled in southern Greece or immigrated from the coast of western Asian Minor into the Aegean islands and into southern Greece. Either way, mythology gave them a Greek origin and eponymous founder, Dorus son of Hellen, the mythological patriarch of the Hellenes.
In the fifth century BC, Dorians and Ionians were the two most politically important Greek ethne, whose ultimate clash resulted in the Peloponnesian War. The degree to which fifth-century Hellenes self-identified as "Ionian" or "Dorian" has itself been disputed. The fifth- and fourth-century literary tradition through which moderns view these ethnic identifications was profoundly influenced by the social politics of the time. Also, according to E.N. Tigerstedt, nineteenth-century European admirers of virtues they considered "Dorian" identified themselves as "Laconophile" and found responsive parallels in the culture of their day as well; their biases contribute to the traditional modern interpretation of "Dorians".
When allowances have been made for the sometimes multiple lenses through which history is viewed, modern readers have also to align the literary sources with the archaeological record, if this is possible.
A man's name, Dōrieus, occurs in the Linear B tablets at Pylos, one of the regions invaded and subjected by the Dorians. Pylos tablet Fn867 records it in the dative case as do-ri-je-we, *Dōriēwei, a third or consonant declension noun with stem ending in w. An unattested plural, *Dōriēwes, would have become Dōrieis by loss of the w and contraction, but in the tablet, which is concerned with contribution of grain to a temple, it is simply a man's name. Whether it had the ethnic meaning of "the Dorian" is unknown.
Julius Pokorny derives Dorian from dōris, "woodland" (which can also mean upland). The dōri- segment is from the o-grade (either ō or o) of Indo-European *deru-, "tree". Dorian might be translated as "the country people", "the mountain people", "the uplanders", "the people of the woods" or some such appellation.
A second popular derivation was given by the French linguist, Émile Boisacq, from the same root, but from Greek doru, "spear" (which was wood); i.e., "the people of the spear" or "spearmen", emphasizing the warrior ferocity of the Dorians.
The Dorian mode in music also was attributed to Doric societies and was associated by classical writers with martial qualities.
The Dorians are mentioned by many authors and inscriptions. The chief classical authors to relate their origins are Herodotus, Thucydides and Pausanias. The customs of the Spartan state and its illustrious individuals are detailed at great length in such authors as Plutarch.
Herodotus himself was from Halicarnassus, a Dorian colony on the southwest coast of Asia Minor (in modern Turkey); following the literary tradition of the times he wrote in Ionic Greek, being one of the last authors to do so. He described the Persian Wars, giving a thumbnail account of the histories of the antagonists, Greeks and Persians.
Herodotus mentions that the "people now called the Dorians" were neighbors of the Pelasgians. The women had a distinctive dress, he said, a tunic (plain dress) not needing to be pinned with brooches.
According to Herodotus as to the Dorian migration, “Although the one nation nowhere yet went out, the Lacedaemonian was very much wandering. For, in the time of King Deucalion, it was settled in the land of Phthia, and in the time of Dorus, the son of Hellen, in the country under Ossa and Olympus, the so-called Histiaean. From the Histiaean, after it had been expelled by the Cadmeians, it was settled in Pindus called Macedonian. Thence again it changed its place to the Dryopian land, and from the Dryopian thus it came to Peloponnesus, and was called Doric.” (Herodot, Book I, 56.3). Thus, according to Herodotus, the Dorians did not acquire their name until they had reached Peloponnesus.
The people they displaced gathered at Athens under a leader Ion and became identified as "Ionians". Most conspicuous among the Dorians as related by Herodotus were the people later known as Lacedaemonians, or Spartans, one of whose archaic legendary kings was named Dōrieus. The military Spartans, under another of their kings, Leonidas, included the famous band of 300 soldiers who sacrificed themselves nearly to a man to delay the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae.
Herodotus' list of Dorian states is as follows. From northeastern Greece were Phthia, Histiaea and Macedon. In central Greece were Doris (the former Dryopia) and in the south Peloponnesus, specifically the states of Lacedaemon, Corinth, Sicyon, Epidaurus, Troezen and Hermione. Overseas were the islands of Rhodes, Cos, Nisyrus and the Anatolian cities of Cnidus, Halicarnassus, Phaselis and Calydna. Dorians also colonised Crete including founding of such towns as Lato, Dreros and Olous. The Cynurians were originally Ionians but had become Dorian under the influence of their Argive masters.
Thucydides professes little of Greece before the Trojan War except to say that it was full of barbarians and that there was no distinction between barbarians and Greeks. The Hellenes came from Phthiotis. The whole country indulged in and suffered from piracy and was not settled. After the Trojan War, "Hellas was still engaged in removing and settling."
Some 60 years after the Trojan War the Boeotians were driven out of Arne by the Thessalians into Boeotia and 20 years later "the Dorians and the Heraclids became masters of the Peloponnese." So the lines were drawn between the Dorians and the Aeolians (here Boeotians) with the Ionians (former Peloponnesians).
Other than these few brief observations Thucydides names but few Dorians. He does make it clear that some Dorian states aligned or were forced to align with the Athenians while some Ionians went with the Lacedaemonians and that the motives for alignment were not always ethnic but were diverse. Among the Dorians was Lacedaemon of course, Corcyra, Corinth and Epidamnus, Leucadia, Ambracia, Potidaea, Rhodes, Cythera, Argos, Carystus, Syracuse, Gela, Acragas (later Agrigentum), Acrae, Casmenae.
He does explain with considerable dismay what happened to incite ethnic war after the unity during the Battle of Thermopylae. The Congress of Corinth formed prior to it "split into two sections." Athens headed one and Lacedaemon the other.
He adds: "the real cause I consider to be ... the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon...."
On the whole, none of the objectives were met, but the investigations served to rule out various speculative hypotheses.
The term "Doric" was used to refer to all dialects of Lowland Scots as a jocular reference to the Doric dialect of the Ancient Greek language. Greek Dorians lived in Sparta amongst other places, a more rural area, and were supposed by the ancient Greeks to have spoken laconically and in a language that was thought harsher in tone and more phonetically conservative than the Attic spoken in Athens.
Use of the term "Doric" in this context may also arise out of a contrast with the anglicised speech of the Scottish capital, because at one point, Edinburgh was nicknamed 'Athens of the North'. The upper/middle class speech of Edinburgh would thus be 'Attic', making the rural areas' speech 'Doric'.