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What is the difference between “Brüder” and “Gebrüder”? asks about the difference between the words "Brüder" and "Gebrüder".

There is the gender neutral Geschwister for brothers and sisters. Geschwister is a generic feminine gender (generisches Femininum, based on Schwester). In German the Generisches Maskulinum is more common.

Is there a reason, why Geschwister became the generic expression for sisters and brothers and not Gebrüder?

The Ngram for Bruder, Brüder, Schwester(n), Gebrüder and Geschwister is: enter image description here

  • I think it might be interesting to see whether there is a connection to "verschwistert" und "verbrüdert". – Christian Sep 10 '16 at 18:47
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    @knut You seem to be assuming Geschwister is feminine. It isn't. – tofro Sep 10 '16 at 23:16
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    @tofro. The question seems to confuse grammatical gender (genus) with natural gender (sexus). Gebrüder and Geschwister are both used only in the plural. Consequently neither has a recognizable grammatical gender. – fdb Sep 10 '16 at 23:20
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    @fdb Geschwister is neuter, according to Duden and other dictionaries, and can (other than Gebrüder) very well be used in singular: "Das jüngere Geschwister ging noch einmal aus dem Haus" – tofro Sep 10 '16 at 23:23
  • @tofro. In the singular it is very rare. By the way, in OHG giswester is feminine. – fdb Sep 10 '16 at 23:25
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Both gibruoder, and giswester were known in Old High German, when they indeed had a gender specific meaning, restricted to brothers or sisters only.

Starting from Middle High German we also find references for geswister used for children of same parents to include both, brothers and sisters.

Little is known for the specific reason why boys were included in Geschwister but not girls in Gebrüder but it may have something to do with the usage of these terms.

Even in Old High German the term giswester was exclusively used for a close family-like relationship (of girls) whereas gibruoder was always more than just a family relationship as it also indicates heritage. Apparently this was important in this rather patriarchal society.

wir von gots gnaden Ernst, des heil. rom. reichs erzmarschalg, kurfurste, und Albrecht gebruder, herzogen zu Sachsen Grimm

This may also be why from the 19th Century until today Gebrüder is used exclusively for business relationships (between male brothers).

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    Agree with most what you say, but not necessarily the last sentence: There are quite some 20st century standing expressions from Gebrüder Wright to Gebrüder Blattschuss that do not necessarily relate to business relationship. (And I very much like "male brothers", especially in this context...) – tofro Sep 13 '16 at 14:27
  • @tofro: Well, Gebrüder Blattschuss seems to be a band, which can be called a business entity. As for Gebrüder Wright, aren't they more commonly known as (die) Brüder Wright in German? I cannot remember any occasion where I heard them referred to as Gebrüder Wright. – O. R. Mapper Sep 13 '16 at 20:24
  • @O.R.Mapper If I could add an ngrams graph to a comment, I'd show you both expressions are used nearly equally often, with a slight headstart to "Gebrüder". And a "band" as a business entity? Rolling Stones Ltd. Get real... – tofro Sep 13 '16 at 20:42
  • @tofro: Not sure what you mean. Of course, at least professional bands play to generate revenue and act as a little company, just like a small hypothetical grocery store named Gebrüder Müller und Meier. That's what I understand by "business entity". – O. R. Mapper Sep 13 '16 at 21:03
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I think the answer is simply that language doesn't strictly follow logic all the time (after all, the rules are defined by watching the language as it evolves, not the other way round).

In case the generic masculine ("Generisches Maskulinum") in German is already occupied with specific meaning - here: "Assortment of brothers" - Language needs to somehow work around this. In this specific case, it has chosen to do that that by employing the sisters. Apparently, there was simply a higher need during language evolution for a word denominating all the brothers in a family than for all siblings, so the brothers occupied that vacancy first.

EDIT: Dictionaries (and Takkat's answer) say that "Geschwister" used to denominate the sisters of a family originally - This doesn't change much of the argumentation, though: Language just considered the assortment of all siblings more important to have a name and thus re-used the sisters.

BTW: The generic for "Krankenschwester" is not Krankenbruder, thus somehow breaking the same "rule", just for other (historical) reasons.

  • I think, Geschwister was already occupied with a specific meaning, too: "mittelhochdeutsch geswister, althochdeutsch giswestar, eigentlich = Gesamtheit der Schwestern" (Duden). And I think "Krankenschwestern" is equal to "Ordensschwestern", there have just never been male ones in the group. – Iris Sep 13 '16 at 11:22
  • @Iris Note there are indeed "Ordensbrüder" and "Krankenpfleger" – tofro Sep 13 '16 at 11:48
  • Yes, but Ordensbrüder are only for men and Krankenpfleger (plural) is for mixed groups. – Iris Sep 13 '16 at 13:03
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    @Iris: That was my point, actually. There's no rule in language that wouldn't have all kind of exceptions – tofro Sep 13 '16 at 14:23
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Gebrüder to me is very specifically only the men of a family and a very “old” word with a specific meaning. Geschwister is what I describe my siblings with.

As pointed out in the question you referenced Gebrüder is more of a “corporate” term. It quite probably arose from the fact that men used to work and also take over the job of their fathers. Therefore the family and especially its male members were intimately tied to the family's profession. Gebrüder is in a way the word for the staff of such a “family-company”.

Geschwister on the other hand is simply the word for siblings. Since both words have quite different meaning, Geschwister is the only real candidate for siblings.

  • Do you mean why Geschwister is the word for siblings? I tried to explain why Gebrüder is not the same as siblings. I thought that would explain why sibling remained as the only word for sibling. ;) – J0hj0h Sep 13 '16 at 11:55
  • It's totally fine! :) I will try to improve my answer. ;) – J0hj0h Sep 13 '16 at 12:00

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