Monday, February 23, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Iraq

It has been quite a while since we've investigated the linguistic diversity of a Middle Eastern country. Back in November we looked at the languages of Iran, and today we're returning to the region to learn more about Iraq, which borders it to the west.

The Official Language

For much of Iraq's history, Arabic was its sole official language. This should come as no surprise since Arabic is generally considered to be the most important language in countries where Islam is the dominant religion. The majority of Iraq's population speaks Mesopotamian Arabic, a variety of Arabic that is primarily used in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

In 2004, Iraq recognized another official language in its new constitution: Kurdish. This Indo-Iranian dialect continuum is spoken by Kurds, members of an ethnic group that comprises between 10 and 15% of the country's population. However, despite finally receiving official language status in Iraq, use of the Kurdish language in nearby countries such as Syria and Turkey is often discouraged or even dangerous for political reasons.

The Euphrates River
Recognized Languages

Since the adoption of its new constitution, Iraq has also begun to recognize regional languages based on the idea that every citizen should be able to educate their child in their native language. Currently, there are three recognized regional languages in Iraq: "Turkmen", "Syriac", and Armenian.

That first language is in quotation marks because what Iraqis generally refer to as "Turkmen" is not actually Turkmen, the official language of Turkmenistan that is a member of the Turkic language family. Instead, they use the name to refer to South Azeri, a variety of the closely related Azeri language (also known as Azerbaijani) that is spoken by approximately 600,000 people in Iraq.

The second language is also in quotation marks because the term Syriac is generally used to refer to a dialect of Aramaic used centuries ago that has since evolved into modern languages. The language referred to as "Syriac" by Iraqis today is more commonly known to linguists as Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. It is spoken by approximately 30,000 people in Iraq.

Finally, there's Armenian, a fascinating independent branch of the Indo-European language family. It has approximately 60,000 speakers in Iraq.

Minority Languages

Iraq is also home to many other minority languages, including Persian, Mandaic, and Shabaki. There are approximately 227,000 speakers of the Persian language in Iraq. Mandaic, a variety of the Aramaic language, is spoken by around 5,000 Iraqis. Last but certainly not least, Shabaki, the language of the Shabak people, is an Indo-Iranian language with an unknown number of native speakers.