LINGUIST List 14.2533

Wed Sep 24 2003

Review: Historical Ling/Lang Description: Wexler (2002)

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  1. Ariann Stern, Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish

Message 1: Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish

Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2003 18:28:00 +0000
From: Ariann Stern <>
Subject: Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish

Wexler, Paul (2002) Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish: Jews, Sorbs,
Khazars, and the Kiev-Polessian Dialect. Mouton de Gruyter.

Announced at

Ariann Stern, University of California, Los Angeles

This monograph is the newest chapter in Wexler's career-long
examination of Yiddish contact linguistics. As ever, it is
provocative, challenging other prevailing theories of the history and
genetic origins of Yiddish. True to form, it is also rich in data to
support the author's premises. In it, Wexler uses the relexification
hypothesis to support his claim that ''the contemporary Ashkenazic
Jews are unlikely to be, in any significant sense, the direct
descendants of the Palestinian Jews of the Roman period''
(543). Specifically, he proposes that Yiddish underwent relexification
twice: once in western Slavic (Upper Sorbian), and secondly in the
eastern Slavic (Ukraine and Belarus') language area. This second
relexification occurred relatively recently (he dates it to the
15th/16th centuries), which suggests that an eastern Slavic speaking
Jewish population was already in place at an earlier date. This
population was, in Wexler's view, descended from the Khazars and other
groups of converts.

As in earlier works, Wexler does not a priori accept the claim of
earlier Yiddishists that Yiddish developed from High German to meet
the linguistic needs of the Jews in France and Germany. Rather, he
presents a more complex and comprehensive history of the origins of
Yiddish that accounts for the complex Slavic substratal influence on
the development of the language.

The book begins with an introduction in which Wexler elucidates his
theory that Yiddish is a language with a Slavic grammar and a
relexified German lexicon. Wexler then proposes to show that the
relexification hypothesis can be used (1) to predict the development
of the Yiddish lexical corpus,and (2) to uniformly explain the
criteria behind the selection of German, Hebrew, and Slavic elements
in the language. He also first suggests that the chronology of the
relexifications of Slavic Yiddish to German allows him to support a
Slavic genetic claim on Yiddish and to trace its origins to a group of
speakers that largely comprise a convert population, namely the

In the first chapter, entitled ''The relexification hypothesis in
Yiddish'', Wexler provides background on the relexification hypothesis
and its evolution in work on Creoles in the 1950s. He also outlines
the pros and cons of using this theory in reconstructing the origins
of Yiddish. Interestingly, Wexler gives several examples of work done
in other languages using this theory and then explains that not only
would this theory work towards clarifying much in the history of
Yiddish, but that a study of relexfication in Yiddish would in turn
contribute to the theory, because Yiddish has a written history, comes
from a single language family (Indo-European), and, in Wexler's view,
was relexified twice. His contention is that first Upper Sorbian was
first relexified to German and Old Hebrew, and second, that the
Eastern Slavic language of southern Belarus/northern Ukraine was
relexified to Yiddish, German and Hebrew. As the title suggests, the
majority of the book is devoted to examination of this relexification
and the lexical and grammatical evidence to support this. Wexler
presents several examples of relexification in Yiddish in these
different areas of development to whet the reader's appetite, with
promises of greater detail concerning these examples to be given in
later chapters.

In Chapter One Wexler also re-assesses his earlier views on the
development of Yiddish on the basis of work in the relexification
hypothesis. He recounts salient points in the history of Slavic and
the Jews in the Slavic lands from several viewpoints, notably those of
Max Weinreich. He also discusses the Khazar Jews and, in relation to
that discussion, introduces his notion that conversion significantly
contributed to the development of the Jewish population in Eastern
Europe and, consequently, to the development of Yiddish. He concludes
the chapter with the linguistic evidence supporting his theory that
Yiddish underwent two separate relexifications. He presents his
evidence in seven points that are discussed further in later chapters,
particularly Chapter Four.

Chapter Two ''Approaches to the study of Yiddish and other Jewish
languages'' is highly significant for putting the need for Wexler's
monograph in the context of earlier and current work on the history of
Yiddish. Importantly, he also gives a brief history of Jews in Germany
and Eastern Europe, including reference to the Khazars. He also
counters lacunae and falsehoods he sees in earlier theories on both
the history of Yiddish and the history of the Jews in Yiddish speaking
lands. A major point Wexler raises is that his work on the
relexification hypothesis for Yiddish ''suggests that it may be more
prudent to speak of three genetically different Jewish language groups
on the territory stretching from Germany in the west to Belarus' and
Ukraine in the east'' (69). This allows him to speculate on the
overall nature of the relexification process and to posit that it may
have been two separate processes, or that relexification may have been
one long event occurring across space and time.

In Chapter Three ''Criteria for selecting German and Hebrew-Aramaic
and for retaining Slavic elements in Yiddish'' Wexler explains why
Yiddish would have selected to use lexicon from a particular language
and how it modified the morphology to fit West and East Slavic
grammatical structure(s) when it was relexified. Chapter Three also
presents some of the most in-depth discussion on the nature of Hebrew
and ''Hebroid'' elements in Yiddish. Major concepts central to the
discussion in Chapter Four are also presented in Chapter Three. The
main portions of the chapter cover ''component blending'', ''status of
synonyms'' and ''constructing an etymological dictionary for a
relexified language''. These sections provide Wexler the opportunity
to underscore the potential the relexification hypothesis provides for
further research on Yiddish and, by extension, Modern Hebrew.

Chapter Four ''Evidence for the two-tiered relexification hytpothesis
in Yiddish: From Upper Sorbian to German and from Kiev-Polessian to
Yiddish'' is the longest, most data-rich chapter in the book. It
comprises several sections beginning with observations about
application of the relexification hypothesis in Yiddish; two sections
on German morphemes (those that are accepted into Yiddish and those
fully or partially blocked by Slavic); discussion of Slavic
grammatical markers (gender and number) in Yiddish; unrelexified
components; and the Khazar components ''in the language and
ethnogenesis of the Ashkenazic Jews''.

Several of the examples in Chapter Four appeared earlier, sometimes in
different contexts in order to illustrate other points. The discussion
of German morphemes is dominated by sets of examples, with relatively
little discussion in comparison to later sections in the chapter. In
contrast, the exegeses on gender and especially on number provide more
historical insight in the development of these grammatical categories
in Slavic. Given the emphasis on the dual, which is no longer extant
in modern Slavic languages except in calcified forms, this need for
discussion is both understandable and welcome. The final section on
the Khazars would be able to stand alone as its own chapter,
especially given its centrality to this book.

The fifth chapter, ''Future Challenges'', is, as expected, the
conclusion. Here Wexler states that he has indeed used the
relexification hypothesis to show that Yiddish is the most reliable
indicator that Khazar Jews were instrumental in the ethnic development
of the Ashkenazic Jews. As the title suggests, he also devotes the
majority of this chapter to future avenues for study. One of the most
exciting aspects of this book were the constant suggestions for future
research in the history of Yiddish and the origins/development of
Modern Hebrew. Most of these suggestions were avenues of research that
would further not only work on the relexification hypothesis, but that
would likely add to any study of the history of these languages. For
the most part, these suggestions could be applied to any number of
theoretical approaches to the study of these languages.

The end matter needs mention. The Bibliography (pp. 555-630) covers
most major approaches to the history of Yiddish and also provides
important references to work on the history and development of Slavic.
I cannot speak for the references to German. There are three excellent
indices: one of names (primarily of the other scholars referenced in
end notes); one of examples, organized by language; and finally, a
standard subject index. The only thing missing from the end matter is
a map. In several end-notes Wexler refers to maps in other sources,
which underscored the fact his own text lacks them.

This book makes several important contributions outside of the
application of the relexification theory to Yiddish in the western and
eastern Slavic language areas and the subsequent impact of that theory
on Wexler's notions on the origins of the Jews in these areas. The
rich data sets and the extensive bibliographies make this book a
tremendously valuable reference tool. The comparisons of Yiddish with
German, Slavic and Hebrew are clear and easy to follow. The richness
of the data and the corresponding discussion of the impacts of Slavic
and German on the development of Yiddish in different areas and
different time-periods are themselves so absorbing and command so much
of the discussion in the book that it is easy to lose sight of
Wexler's overall goal of showing the possible impact of
non-Palestinian origins for the Ashkenazic Jews.

Another important contribution of this book is Wexler's discussion of
earlier work on the field of Yiddish historical and contact
linguistics. This discussion highlights the brilliance and
thoroughness of Wexler's scholarship in the field of Yiddish

The order in which Wexler discussed modern and biblical Hebrew was
distracting. Wexler could have devoted much more time to the role of
Biblical and Medieval Hebrew and the Hebroid elements in Yiddish, and
then secondarily presented Modern Hebrew as a somewhat parallel
example of relexification in a Jewish language, where the roles of
lexifier (Yiddish) and lexified (Hebrew) are reversed. Moreover, a
more in- depth analysis of the role of biblical and medieval Hebrew as
a lexifying language would have done more to support his theories of
the limited role of Palestinian Jews in the ethnogenesis of the
Ashkenazic Jews.

One note: As a novice to the relexification theory, I found some of
the earlier discussion of examples difficult to follow at first,
because I was trying to assimilate both the theory and its practical
applications. As the chapters progressed, it was easier to follow the


Ariann Stern is a researcher with the Language Research Center at the
University of California, Los Angeles, where she is project manager of
the Language Materials Project. Her research interests include Slavic
philology, Yiddish linguistics, and L2 acquisition.
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