Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekOlder or Younger, Male or Female: Not All “Brothers” Are the Same Around the World

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In honor of National Brother Day this May 24, we dedicate this article to all brothers. Throughout human history, men who share the same parents, or at least one, have had a love-hate relationship. From the fratricidal stories of Cain and Abel, and Romulus and Remus to friendlier day-to-day fraternal relationships, there is nothing in the world that can equate the bond that brothers have. Not all fraternal relationships throughout history, however, have been negative. Brother, in some contexts, can mean relative, kinsman, or close male friend.

The word brother in English ultimately comes from Proto-Indo-European *bʰréh₂tēr that left cognates in all Indo-European languages: broer (Dutch and Afrikaans), Bruder (German) برادر‎ (barādar, Persian), and भ्रातृ (bhrātr, Sanskrit), among others. *Bʰréh₂tēr evolved to frater, in Latin, which gives us words like fraternal, fraternity, and fratricide. Italian fratello came from a very endearing development: from Latin frater with the addition of the diminutive particle -lus, which translates as “little brother”. In Spanish, however, and in the other Iberian Romance languages, the Latin-speakers there preferred using the word germanus, which meant “of or relating to ones siblings” and it comes from the Latin word germen, which means “sprout” or “bud”, as in ones siblings sprout from ones parents, too. Germanus became germà in Catalan, irmão in Portuguese, and hermano in Spanish.

An interesting phenomenon is the double words for brother, depending if one is referring to ones older or younger brother. In Mandarin Chinese, 哥哥 (gēge) means “older brother”, whereas 弟弟 (dìdi) means “younger brother”. Also, in Taos, a language spoken by the Taos people of New Mexico, pòpóna means “older brother” and p’ǫ́yna “younger brother”.

Another interesting linguistic phenomenon is the lack of a single word to mean brother. For example, both in Tagalog and Turkish, one may refer to one’s sibling, regardless of sex, as kapatid or kardeş respectively. In order to specify that one is referring to a male sibling, in Tagalog, one would have to say kapatid na lalaki or “sibling who is a man”. A similar construction can be done in Turkish, where erkek (man, male) is placed before kardeş to mean “male sibling” or “brother”. Both languages do, however, have specific words to refer to an older brother. In Tagalog, it is kuya and in Turkish, it is ağabey. The Turkish word is a composite of the words ağa, “lord” and bey, “sir”, because, which older brother wouldn’t want his younger siblings calling him “lord-sir”?

There are languages in the world that reflect what is important to the speakers. Sometimes, a brother is just a brother. Other times, there is no difference between a brother and a sister, until one desires to be specific. Then, there are others that differentiate between an older brother and a younger one, each having a different role in the family. Perhaps it was the way that societies required that the younger siblings of the family show reverence and respect to the elder brother, in a way to acknowledge his future role as head of the family or clan. Perhaps, then, this was the reason for some of the negative stories about brothers who fought each other, fighting over control and leadership. Regardless of how one interprets the dynamics, it is always nice to know that a brother is there as a friend, confidant, defender, but can sometimes be a nuisance.