Friday, August 24, 2018

Family relations, Part 4a: Word for brothers and sisters

[This entry comes from Chapter 7, "Words for family relations", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

English brother and Latin frāter

The English word brother [ˈbɹʌ.ðəɹ] is a native (patrimonial) Germanic word and it is a cognate of the Latin word for ‘brother’, namely frāter (acc. frātrem, regular stem frātr‑). Both brother and frāter go back to Proto-Indo-European *bhrā́ter- (also reconstructed as *bʰréh₂tēr) and are patrimonial cognates of Ancient Greek φράτηρ (phrátēr).

Proto-Indo-European bhrā́ter-
Eng. brother
Lat. frāter
A.Gk. φράτηρ (phrátēr)

Many other Indo-European languages have keep this basic word for a family relationship for the last five thousand years, such as for example German Bruder, Dutch broer, Russian брат (brat), Romanian frate, Iranian برادر (barâdar), or Hindi/Urdu भाई (bhāī; Urdu spelling بھائی), which descends from Sanskrit भ्रातृ (bhrā́tṛ). Do note that the word for ‘brother’ in Modern Greek is the unrelated αδελφός (adelfós), a word that comes from Ancient Greek ἀδελφός (adelphós), an alternate word for ‘brother’ in that ancient language, one which is derived from the word‎ δελφύς (delphús) ‘womb’.

Spanish hermano and hermana

The ancient Indo-European word for ‘brother’ did not survive into all languages that descend from Latin, Spanish being one of them. In Spanish, the word for ‘brother is hermano, which is unrelated to either Eng. brother or Lat. frāter.

So, where does the Spanish word hermano ‘brother’ come from? It comes from the Latin adjective germānus ‘true, authentic’, or actually from the shortening of the Latin phrase frāter germānus ‘true/authentic brother’, which was used to refer to brothers with the same mother and father, as opposed to stepbrothers and half-brothers. (The phrase was also used sometimes, however, for brothers who shared the same father.) The same thing is true of the word hermana ‘sister’, which descends from the feminine form, germāna, of the adjective germānus. The phrase frater germānus was used already in Rome’s golden age and, for some reason, it got shortened to germānus in some of the western Romance languages, such as Spanish (hermano), Portuguese (irmão), and Catalan (germà). Equivalently, the phrase soror germāna was used for sisters and eventually the first part of the phrase was lost, giving us hermana.

The sound changes that converted Lat. germānus and germāna to Sp. hermano and hermana are fully the expected ones in patrimonial words, but there is a spelling change that requires some explaining. The change in the ending ‑us to ‑o in Old Spanish is perfectly regular. (Actually, the ‑o derives from the accusative ending -ŭm, not the nominative ending ‑ŭs, cf. Part I, Chapters 8 and 10.) What looks like the change of the initial g to a (silent) h, it is not the result of any sound change in the consonant itself, as it might seem. What happened is that the sound of the letter g at the beginning of a word was lost in Old Spanish when followed by the short vowel ĕ. This resulted in the word ermano in Old Spanish. The addition of the silent h (Sp. hache muda) in the spelling took place later and it had nothing to do with pronunciation. For some reason, someone thought that it would be a good idea to put a silent h at the beginning of this word as if to hold the place for that lost Latin consonant.

Old Spanish

Modern Spanish

What we just said about hermano applies to its feminine form hermana ‘sister’, which comes from the Latin phrase soror germāna ‘true sister’, also by shortening (for the Latin word soror ‘sister’ and derived words found in English and Spanish, cf. §7.5.4 below).

The Latin adjective germānus is derived from the Latin noun germen, same in the nominative and accusative cases (the regular stem was germin‑). Lat. germen meant primarily ‘shoot, sprout, bud’. It comes from Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁mn̥ ‘offspring; seed’. The Latin source-word  was derived from the root *ǵenh₁‑ ‘to beget’, ‘to give birth’, a root found in many other words, such as Eng. genetics ~ Sp. genética, Eng. generic ~ Sp. genérico/a, and genitals ~ Sp. genitales.

Going back to the Latin adjective germānus (feminine: germāna; stem: germān‑), this word meant ‘full, own’ and ‘genuine, real, actual, true’. It was formed from the stem germ‑ and the adjective forming suffix ‑ān‑, and the inflectional ending: nominative, masculine singular ‑us, or nominative feminine singular ‑a). From this Latin word, we get the nouns Eng. germ ~ Sp. germen, as well as the derived verbs Eng. germinate ~ Sp. germinar. From the exact Latin word germānus, comes the English adjective germane [ʤəɹ.ˈmeɪ̯n], which means ‘relevant to a subject under consideration’ (COED). It translates into Spanish as pertinente or relacionado and it is a cognate of Sp. hermano/a.

English derivates
‘to beget’, ‘to give birth’
genus, genetic, genome,…
‘offspring, seed’
germ, germen, germane,…

The Latin adjective germānus is not to be confused with its homonym noun germānus ‘a Germanic person’ (germān‑us), whose adjective form was germānicus ‘Germanic’ (germān‑ĭc‑us; fem. germānica). The equivalents in English and Spanish are Germanic and germánico, respectively. It is not clear where the noun germānus (plural germāni) for Germanic people comes from. It seems Julius Caesar was the first to use it, as he was also the first to use the word Germania for the land they inhabited, west of the Rhine. This word is the source of the English country name Germany (Sp. Alemania). The Germanic tribes played a major part in both in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and in the creation of Medieval Europe.[1]

As we saw, the switch from Lat. frater ‘brother’ and Lat. soror ‘sister’ to a derivate of Lat. germānus and germāna is not common to all Romance languages, only to those in the Iberian Peninsula, such as Catalan germà ‘brother’ and germana ‘sister’, and Galego/Portuguese irmão ‘brother’ and irmã ‘sister’ (in addition to Sp. hermano/hermana). Descendants of Lat. germānus/a are also now found in parts of Italy and they were supposedly found in the whole Italic peninsula in earlier times, only to be later replaced back by fratello ‘brother’ and sorella ‘sister’ in Standard Italian. These two words come from diminutive forms of Latin frater and soror. The French word for ‘brother’ is frère [ˈfʀɛʀ], a patrimonial descendant of Lat. frater.


[1] The Germanic peoples’ names for themselves are often related to the words Deutch and Dutch, related to the Germanic word for people. Another name for the Germanic peoples in Latin was Teutonicus (cf. Eng. Teutonic ~ Sp. teutónico/a), especially after the 8th century, probably from a Germanic tribe’s name, the Teutons or Teutones. The cognates Eng. Gothic ~ Sp. gótico have also been used in the past for these people, though technically it is a more restricted term that refers to a subgroup of Germanic peoples, the Goths, an East Germanic people, with two main branches, the Visigoths (Western Goths) and the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths). The name for Germany is Allemagne in French and Alemania in Spanish. Both of these names are derived from a particular confederation of Germanic tribes known as Allemani, Alemanni, or Alamanni located on the upper Rhine river, north of the Italian Alps and south of the original region where the Franks lived in the 5th century before they took over the northern half of what is today France (Roman Galia). Spanish borrowed the name Alemania from French. The word Alemanni has been said to come from a phrase meaning ‘all men’ in Germanic. Another theory is that it comes from from alahmannen ‘men of sanctuary’.

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