Is there a backstory to explain why the bears speak English? In Golden Compass it doesn't even seem like they have their own native language (I haven't read further). Why would that make sense (in-universe)?

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    I don't recall anything in universe that explains why they speak English. From an out of universe perspective Lyra needed to be able to speak with them for the sake of the plot, so they had to speak a language she understood. – Anthony Grist Sep 10 '13 at 15:11
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    Wikipedia says (no citations): "While they mainly speak English in the books, they are shown to speak in a number of languages." – DVK-on-Ahch-To Sep 10 '13 at 15:34

It is apparent that English is a sort of lingua franca in Lyra's world. Note that it is used in the Magisterium, and the Russian Priest in the remote Siberian village that Will meets in Amber Spyglass speak English. The priest particularly speaks English as a second language, whereas the other villagers don't.

The Armoured Bears that Lyra speaks to are royalty among the bears. They speak English as it is the language that allows them to communicate with the widest range of humans, when they need to.

At times when Iorek is talking directly to other bears, the translation convention may hold. When Iorek speaks, his words are rendered in English, but he is actually speaking in Norwegian (or a local bear language).

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