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Ask Dr. Universe: Why are bears called bears when they can be called anything else, not just a bear?

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.

Lynn Gordon.

That’s what I learned from my friend Lynn Gordon, an associate professor emeritus of linguistics in the English department 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.

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Dr. Universe

U.S. News ranks WSU Global Campus online degrees among nation’s best for 2020

Three online programs at Washington State University have been ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

WSU is the only university in Washington state to rank in the top 25 of U.S. News’ Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs.

WSU’s Global Campus offers 20 undergraduate and 12 graduate degrees in many disciplines, as well as numerous minors and certificates. New degrees this year include a BA in Anthropology, BS in Biology, BA in English, BS in Earth and Environmental Sciences, and BA in Political Science. Additional degree programs are currently in development.

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WSU Insider

Honors College names first Elma Ryan Bornander Chair

Will Hamlin.
Will Hamlin

Washington State University English Professor William M. Hamlin has been selected as the first faculty member to serve the Honors College as the Elma Ryan Bornander Honors Chair.

“Will is a scholar, author, researcher, and award-winning teacher and mentor who has served the university, his department, and the Honors College and its students for years in innovative and impactful ways,” said M. Grant Norton, Honors dean. “We are very pleased that our relationship with him will progress even further and more deeply over the next two years through this endowed chair position.”

Hamlin has already prepared his spring 2020 course aimed at junior-level students titled, “Global Shakespeare.” Hamlin said he plans to help students explore how the Bard’s works are understood and performed in different parts of world.

“It’s fascinating,” he said, “to investigate the ways in which different cultures make sense of Shakespeare. There are strong traditions of Shakespearean production in India, Japan, and Russia, for example. I’d like Honors students to consider how ‘Othello’ is played in South Africa or how Israelis tend to view the character Shylock.”

This new Honors chair will provide funding for Hamlin to employ Honors College student Emma Taylor to help with his research. One project will involve using computational linguistics to study ideological shifts in English-language use over large periods of time. This sort of study is now being made possible by the extensive digitization of early printed books.

Hamlin said he is interested in examining the balances between religious and secular language in the early modern era. A question to pursue could be, for example, “in what contexts does a word like ‘soul’—which has strong religious connotations—appear between the years 1500-1700 in English texts? How does it change over time? When and why does its meaning evolve? What are its collocates—the words used in close proximity? What do they tell us?” Hamlin said that corpus linguistics enables the detailed scrutiny of huge collections of texts—tens of thousands of books—as they shift over time in their ideological assumptions and implications.

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WSU Insider

Language is power

Language, says Kim Christen, “is really about relationships. Languages bring to life relationships to other human beings, to ancestors, to ancestors that aren’t human, to landscape, to histories, stories—to knowledge.”

Kimberly Christen.Christen is a professor of digital technology and culture and director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University. The Center develops collaborative projects between scholars, students, and diverse community members, with an emphasis on ethical curation and equitable access. One of the projects is the co-curated and managed Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, a trove of Native American culture and a resource for teachers and community members working together to revitalize Native languages and cultures.

Christen prefers the term revitalization to preservation because, she says, “preservation conjures the idea that these materials and languages are not ongoing, critical parts of living cultures.” The word also invokes a past in which the U.S. government simultaneously sought to document disappearing Native languages while, “at the same time, they were promoting genocide.”

That, says Christen, was “a perverse notion of preservation.”

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WSU Insider

Center for Arts and Humanities celebrates launch, hosts NEH chairman

Washington State University will celebrate the public launch of the Center for Arts and Humanities (CAH) with two workshops and a reception on Oct. 24. Joining the festivities will be Jon Parrish Peede, chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“The center will serve as a ‘front door’ to the arts and humanities at WSU. Our goal is to nurture curiosity and encourage innovation that crosses traditional scholarly boundaries and supports the public good,” said Todd Butler, associate professor of English and CAH director.

The center will award its first two undergraduate scholarships at the reception and celebrate the work of the current cohort of eight CAH Faculty Fellows, who are pursuing projects ranging from an examination of the links between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frank Lloyd Wright to collaborations with Native American singers to preserve recordings of traditional Nez Perce songs.

Formally approved by the Board of Regents in May 2019, the center is supported by a University-wide consortium that includes the Office of Research, College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School, WSU Libraries, and the Office of the President.

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WSU Insider