When a species goes extinct, sometimes fossils can be found, remains uncovered. The presence of DNA might allow scientists to decipher the biological essence. We know the Stegosaurus. We can study the Wooly Mammoth.

But when a human language disappears, especially one spoken by indigenous tribal people, there’s rarely any key left behind. For most of the world’s 6,000 languages, writing samples are sparse, recordings rare. One by one, they’re going silent. Each loss becomes a linguistic black hole, where an entire way of knowing the world gets trapped out of hearing, gone forever.

Nearly all of them could be extinct in the next two centuries, says University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss.

“I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind,” Krauss said during a session on the phenomena of extinction at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Francisco. “It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species.”

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