Although the data are not absolutely reliable, the government estimates that 76 percent of the people are Arab; 19 percent are Kurds; while Turkomans, Assyrians, Armenians, and other relatively small groups make up the rest. All but a small percentage adhere to Islam. The Islamic component is split into two main sects, Sunni and Shia, with the Shias by far the majority. Officially the government sets the number of Shias at 55 percent. In the 1980s knowledgeable observers began to question this figure, regarding it as low. Because the government does not encourage birth control and the Shias, the least affluent in society, have traditionally had the highest birthrate, a more reasonable estimate of their numbers would seem to be between 60 and 65 percent. All but a few of the estimated 3,088,000 Kurds are Sunni, and thus the Sunni Arabs--who historically have been the dominant religious and ethnic group-- constitute a decided minority vis-á-vis the Shia majority.
Almost all Iraqis speak at least some Arabic, the mother tongue for the Arab majority. Arabic, one of the more widely spoken languages in the world, is the mother tongue claimed in 1988 by over 177 million people from Morocco to the Arabian Sea. One of the Semitic languages, it is related to Aramaic, Phoenician, Syriac, Hebrew, various Ethiopic languages, and the Akkadian of ancient Babylonia and Assyria.
Throughout the Arab world the language exists in three forms: the Classical Arabic of the Quran; the literary language developed from the classical and referred to as Modern Standard Arabic, which has virtually the same structure wherever used; and the spoken language, which in Iraq is Iraqi Arabic. Educated Arabs tend to be bilingual--in Modern Standard Arabic and in their own dialect of spoken Arabic. Even uneducated Arabic speakers, who in Iraq are about 60 percent of the population, can comprehend the meaning of something said in Modern Standard Arabic, although they are unable to speak it. Classical Arabic, apart from Quranic texts, is known chiefly to scholarly specialists.
Most of the words of Arabic's rich and extensive vocabulary are variations of triconsonantal roots, each of which has a basic meaning. The sounds of Arabic are also rich and varied and include some made in the throat and back of the larynx which do not occur in the major Indo-European languages. Structurally there are important differences between Modern Standard Arabic and spoken Arabic, such as the behavior of the verb: the voice and tense of the verb are indicated by different internal changes in the two forms. In general the grammar of spoken Arabic is simpler than that of the Modern Standard Arabic, having dropped many noun declensions and different forms of the relative pronoun for the different genders. Some dialects of spoken Arabic do not use special feminine forms of plural verbs.
Dialects of spoken Arabic vary greatly throughout the Arab world. Most Iraqis speak one common to Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan and--as is true of people speaking other dialects--they proudly regard theirs as the best. Although they converse in Iraqi Arabic, there is general agreement that Modern Standard Arabic, the written language, is superior to the spoken form. Arabs generally believe that the speech of the beduins resembles the pure classical form most closely and that the dialects used by the settled villagers and townspeople are unfortunate corruptions.
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