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 Khazars.
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 linguistics.
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 discussion.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.