Dear Dr. Universe,
Why are bears called bears when they can be called anything else, not just a bear?
— Natallia, 8, Yakima, Wash.
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.”
Humans have a unique knack for speech. They talk about things in the past or future. They make up new words. They even say things they’ve never said before (like you did with your excellent question).
To be understood, speakers of a language agree about its rules. This happens very early, when a baby is first learning to talk. When you were little, you learned by listening to others. You agreed to your language’s rules without even thinking about it.
“Most of what we know about culture people didn’t teach us,” Gordon said. “They acted it out in front of us and we absorb it by being human. We’re driven to absorb the culture and language around us. Our brains are built that way.”
That’s how English speakers have passed down the word “bear” for generations. We don’t know exactly how or when the first word for bears was created. But linguists can hunt for a word’s history by looking at its relatives.
English, German, and Dutch are like cousins. English speakers say “bear,” Dutch speakers say “beer,” and Germans say “bär.” These languages sound similar because they share an ancestor — Proto-Germanic, an old language that isn’t spoken anymore.
Before “bear,” Old English speakers used “bera.” This word may come from the Proto-Germanic “*berô,” meaning “the brown one.” Others think “*berô” might be related to the Latin “ferus,” making it mean “the wild one.” We don’t have any written examples, so linguists use an asterisk (*) to show it’s their best guess.
Others look farther back at Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic’s ancestor. This language had a different word for bears: “*rtko.” That’s where the Ancient Greek “arktos” and Latin “ursus” come from.
But how could “*rtko” become “*berô?” It’s possible people didn’t want to say a bear’s true name out loud, so they said “the brown one” or “the wild one.” People might have been afraid of warning bears they hunted, or calling bears to attack them.
That part of the history involves a lot of guessing. But it’s clear “*berô” became “bera,” and “bera” became “bear.”
All of this shows languages change over time. It’s normal for words to shift in sound and meaning. It’s even normal to create new words. Humans move around, meet new humans and borrow words as they go. They agree to the rules, but the rules can change.
So whether you call me “cat” in English, “gato” in Italian or “kedi” in Turkish, it’s all right by me.