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Review of  Two-Tiered Relexification in Yiddish

Reviewer: Ariann Stern
Book Title: Two-Tiered Relexification in Yiddish
Book Author: Paul Wexler
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Yiddish, Eastern
Yiddish, Western
Issue Number: 14.2533

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Date: Mon, 22 Sep 2003 18:08:43 -0700
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.

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

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.