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The Origins of Yiddish, Part Dray

The American-born Paul Wexler, now retired from the University of Tel Aviv, where he taught for many years, remains to this day the enfant terrible of Yiddish linguistics. Looking back, I wish the conversations I had with him when we inhabited adjacent tents while doing our basic training in the Israeli army in 1974, after which our paths never crossed again, had been about Yiddish. As I remember them, however, they were more about the ordeal of being raw conscripts at an age when we were already husbands and fathers.

He then did not have the notoriety he later acquired, in part due to his unconventional academic behavior. Batya Unger-Sargon in her article touched on by my last two columns, relates how, back in 1987, Wexler published a long, pseudonymous review of the papers presented at a Yiddish linguistics conference presided over by Dovid Katz in which Katz roundly attacked every contribution except for one made by Paul Wexler. The world of Yiddish scholarship has still not quite gotten over it.

To a far greater extent, though, Wexler has earned his reputation with his unconventional views. These have not changed greatly since, at the same conference, he broke with Max Weinreich’s “standard theory” of Yiddish origins in a paper titled “Reconceptualizing the Genesis of Yiddish,” which subsequently led to his revolutionary 1993 monograph, “The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity.” This slim, highly technical and copiously footnoted book was a shocker. A far more radical challenge to Weinreich’s “standard theory” than was Katz and Robert King’s “Regensburg hypothesis,” it argued that Yiddish did not originate in German at all. Rather, Wexler maintained, it emerged from a little-known Slavic language called Sorbian, whose homeland was (and for a few tens of thousands of people still is) in far eastern Central Germany, some 50 miles beyond Dresden, where the German, Czech and Polish borders converge.

Sorbian, also known as Wendish, stands roughly halfway between Polish and Czech, and Wexler sought to demonstrate that many pieces in the puzzle of Yiddish fell into place if one assumed that, in late medieval times, a Sorbian-speaking Jewish community underwent a process of “relexification” to German — that is, switched languages when German speakers settled in the region as part of their overall eastward expansion into Slavic territory in the Middle Ages. In doing so, Wexler maintained, these Jews — who, like Jews everywhere, had in their vocabulary many Hebraisms deriving from religious texts and customs — transferred Sorbian words, expressions and grammatical and syntactical usages into German on a wholesale basis, thus creating a new language that was in reality a form of Slavic disguised in Germanic clothing.

One of the numerous examples that Wexler brings to bear on this question will have to suffice as an illustration of his analysis. Already in early medieval German, before Yiddish split off from it as alleged by both the “standard” and “Regensburg” theories, a process took place whereby final voiced consonants like “b” and hard “g” were devoiced; hence, German weg, “way,” became pronounced as “vek,” and leib, “body,” as “leip.” In Yiddish, on the other hand, these words are pronounced “veg” and “leib” to this day. Since, Wexler reasoned, all the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe except Sorbian also have final devoicing, why would German-speaking Jews moving into Slavic-speaking areas have re-voiced such sounds? The answer he gives is that this never happened. Rather, as native Sorbian speakers who abandoned it for German, the first speakers of Yiddish continued to voice final consonants as they always had done.

Taken by itself, such an example might not seem terribly convincing, especially since Yiddish does not voice all final consonants (hant, “hand,” is pronounced in it exactly like devoiced German Hand) and some Polish dialects besides Sorbian do. Wexler’s reply is to say that, though a single case linking Yiddish to Sorbian does not necessarily prove his point, the cumulative evidence of dozens of cases does. To this his detractors rejoin that the other cases he cites are no more persuasive and that dozens of wrongs still do not make a right.

These detractors include all serious Yiddish linguists except for Wexler himself. Why, then, does his Sorbian theory continue to circulate and attract adherents from outside the field of Yiddish linguistics?

There would seem to be two different but connected reasons. On the one hand, if Yiddish originated among medieval Slavic-speaking Jews, about whom we know far less than we do about medieval German-speaking Jews, perhaps the problem of where so many Yiddish speakers came from can be solved by positing a much larger Slavic component in Eastern European Jewry than Jewish historians traditionally assumed. On the other hand, if this component included, as Wexler appears to believe, many Jewish Khazars who fled westward from the destroyed Khazar kingdom to join ex-Sorbian speakers who were already in Eastern Europe at an early date, proponents of the “Khazar theory” of Eastern European Jewry’s origins are given a linguistic boost. Nor has Wexler’s stature with the “Khazarists” been diminished by his denying, like them, the essential unity of the Jewish people and its claim to a common ancestry. This has placed him where most of them are, on the anti-Zionist left, and has embroiled Yiddish linguistics with political issues from which it had previously seemed far removed.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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