A frighteningly high rate of species extinction has become the defining characteristic of the Anthropocene era but species aren’t the only things being lost at an alarming rate. Languages are disappearing as well with equally serious consequences.
Linguists cannot say with certainty how many human languages are spoken today. One linguist’s language may be another’s dialect. For instance, some classify the “languages” of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as “dialects” of a “Scandinavian language” because they share structures, vocabulary, cultural experiences and because they are generally mutually comprehensible. On the other hand, others classify the “eight dialects” of Chinese as “distinct languages,” because, for example, Cantonese, Shanghainese and Mandarin do not share vocabulary and are mutually incomprehensible, even though they share a common orthography. Thus, linguists speculate that there are as few as 5,000 and as many as 9,000 languages.
What’s not in question, however, is that the number of languages is decreasing rapidly. Languages, like species, may be characterized as endangered and they go extinct when the last speaker of a language dies. When that happens, the language and culture disappear with little trace, typically because many of the languages we’re losing have not left written or recorded evidence behind. Indeed, many extinct languages were only spoken, not written.