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Ask Dr. Universe Humanities

Why are bears called bears when they can be called anything else, not just a bear? - Natallia, 8, Yakima, Wash.

Dear Natallia,

You’ve noticed something very important: there’s no natural reason for the words humans use. Any sound could be used to describe a big mammal that eats berries and salmon.

But people who speak English choose “bear.” People who speak Spanish use “oso.” People who speak Maricopa say “maxwet.” They’re all different, but they’re all correct.

That’s what I learned from my friend Lynn Gordon, a linguist at Washington State University.

“Why do we call bears ‘bears’?” she said. “Because we’ve agreed to.”

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Dear Dr. Universe: How do people name continents or places on earth? Thank you. - Lila Grace, 8, Virginia

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways. One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents. There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased. That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do people have different accents? Why do we have them and need them? -Florrie P., 9, UK

Whether you say hello, ‘ello, hey ya’ll, toe-may-toe or toe-ma-toe, we all have a kind of accent that often comes from where we live or who lives around us. That’s what I found out from my friend Nancy Bell, a Washington State University professor who is really curious about the way language works. She told me more about why we have accents and why we need them. There are a lot of different accents. You might have friends who speak English but have a Scottish, Irish, Australian, or French accent. Even in the U.S., there are many accents from the east to the west to the mid-west to the south. In those regions, people also speak many types of English such as Chicano English, African American English, or Indian English. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What’s the best story ever made in the world? – Jada, 13, New Jersey

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. At first, they told these stories out loud, then they started to write. There are more than a hundred million published books on our planet now and to find out which one is best, I visited my friend Matthew Jockers. He’s a professor at Washington State University who combines his love of stories with computer science to research what makes some books bestsellers. Read More ...