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Iranian Ethnic Groups

Iran has historically been a multinational empire dominated by Persians, not a nation-state, leading to a complex ethnic makeup in the modern Iranian state. The Persians account for slightly more than half the population of 70,000,000, a smaller proportion than the Russians were in the Soviet Union. Arabs made up a sizable minority in Iran (3 percent of the total population) in 1986. Many ethnic Arabs live in the southwest, and one of their major grievances has been that although much of the country's oil wealth comes from this area, they do not benefit from it. They have also complained of underdevelopment, discrimination in securing jobs, and poor educational opportunities.

In November 1986, the government reported that the preliminary count in the fourth national census, which had been conducted during October, showed a total population of 48,181,463. The population of Iranian nationals, approximately 45.6 million, represented an increase of about 12 million over the 33.7 million enumerated in the 1976 census. This indicated that the Iranian population had grown at an annual rate of 3.6 percent between 1976 and 1986. A population increase in excess of 3.3 percent per year put Iran's population growth rate among the higher rates in the world at the time.

Iran has a heterogeneous population speaking a variety of Indo-Iranian, Semitic, and Turkic languages. The largest language group consists of the speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, who in 1986 comprised about 70 percent of the population. The speakers of Indo-Iranian languages were not, however, a homogeneous group. They include speakers of Persian, the official language of the country, and its various dialects, speakers of Kirmanji, the term for related dialects spoken by the Kurds who live in the cities, towns, and villages of western Iran and adjacent areas of Iraq and Turkey, speakers of Luri, the language of the Bakhtiaris and Lurs who live in the Zagros, and Baluchi, the language of the seminomadic people who live in southeastern Iran and adjacent areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As of 1987 approximately 28 percent of the population spoke various dialects of Turkish. Speakers of Semitic languages include Arabs and Assyrians.

The official language of Iran is Persian (the Persian term for which is Farsi). It is the language of government and public instruction and was the mother tongue of half of the population as of 1986. Persian is spoken as a second language by a large proportion of the rest. Many different dialects of Persian are spoken in various parts of the Central Plateau, and people from each city can usually be identified by their speech. Some dialects, such as Gilaki and Mazandari, are distinct enough to be virtually unintelligible to a Persian speaker from Tehran or Shiraz.

Persian is distantly related to Latin, Greek, the Slavic and Teutonic languages, and English. This relationship can be seen in such cognates as beradar (brother), pedar (father), and mader (mother). It is a relatively easy language for English-speaking people to learn compared with any other major language of the Middle East. Verbs tend to be regular, nouns lack gender and case distinction, prepositions are much used, noun plural formation tends to be regular, and word order is important. The difficulty of the language lies in the subtlety and variety of word meanings according to context.

Persian is written right to left in the Arabic script with several modifications. It has four more consonants than Arabic, pe, che, zhe, and gaf, making a total of thirty-two letters. Most of the letters have four forms in writing, depending on whether they occur at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word or whether they stand separately. The letters stand for the consonants and the three long vowels, with special marks written above or below the line being used to denote short vowels. These signs are used only in dictionaries and textbooks, so that a reader must have a substantial vocabulary to understand a newspaper, an average book, or handwriting.

There is no accepted standard transliteration of Persian into Latin letters, and Iranians write their names for Western use in a variety of ways, often following French spelling. Among scholars and librarians a profound dispute exists between those who think Persian should be transliterated in conformity with the rules for Arabic and those who insist that Persian should have its own rules because it does not use all of the same sounds as Arabic.

The Persians constitute the largest ethnic component in Iran. They predominate in the major urban areas of central and eastern Iran, in the cities of Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, Arak, Kashan, Kerman, Qom, and Yazd, and in the villages of the Central Plateau. An estimated 50 to 60 percent of the population speaks Persian as a first language.

By 2008 the main ethnic groups in Iran remained the Persians (65 percent). Other groups were the Azerbaijani Turks (16 percent), Kurds (7 percent), Lurs (6 percent), Arabs (2 percent), Baluchis (2 percent), Turkmens (1 percent), Turkish tribal groups such as the Qashqai (1 percent), and non-Persian, non-Turkic groups such as Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians (less than 1 percent). The Persian language (Farsi) was said to be spoken by at least 65 percent of the population and as a second language by a large proportion of the remaining 35 percent. Other languages in use are Azeri Turkish and Turkic dialects, Kurdish, Luri, Arabic, and Baluchi.

In music, poetry, and art the Persians consider themselves, and are generally considered by other groups, as the leaders of the country. This feeling has been strengthened by a consciousness of a heroic past and a rich literary heritage. Both before the Revolution and since, Persians have filled the majority of government positions.

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Page last modified: 09-11-2013 18:09:32 ZULU