Open main menu

Paul Wexler (linguist)

Paul Wexler (born November 6, 1938, Hebrew: פאול וקסלר‎, [ˈpaul ˈveksler]) is an American-born Israeli linguist, and Professor Emeritus of linguistics at Tel Aviv University.[1] His research fields include historical linguistics, bilingualism, Slavic linguistics, creole linguistics, Romani (Gypsy) and Jewish languages.


Paul Wexler
Native name
פאול וקסלר
BornNovember 6, 1938
Academic background
Alma materColumbia University
Academic work
InstitutionsTel Aviv University

Wexler is known in Yiddish linguistics mainly for his theory that Yiddish is ultimately derived from Judaeo-Slavic from a genetic-linguistic perspective, a theory that has been widely rejected by other Yiddish linguists.[2][3]

Wexler notes that the Yiddish language structure provides evidence that Jews had "intimate contact" with early Slavs in the German and Bohemian lands as early as the 9th century.[4]


Wexler was born and raised in the United States, earned his B.A. at Yale University in 1960, his M.A. at Columbia University in 1962 and his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1967. He moved to Israel in 1969. He did his basic training in the IDF in 1974.[5]

Theories on the origins of Jewish languagesEdit

Wexler's theories are based on analyses of numerous Jewish languages and introduce creolization as a factor in the formation of many of them. Other than linguistic analysis, he separates Jewish cultural areas into Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Romance, Judeo-Germanic, Judeo-Turkic, Judeo-Tat, Judaeo-Georgian, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Slavic. While he acknowledges that many Jewish languages have a Hebrew substratum,[6] Wexler's theory holds that these languages were derived from various proselyte groups who retained the grammar of their old non-Jewish languages, while relexifying them through the extensive adoption of new vocabularies.[7] There are 3 distinct theories regarding the origin of Yiddish, and Wexler's approach differs radically with the two main theories positing a Western Rhineland origin or a Bavarian/Czech genesis, and does so by breaking the genetic link between the Slavic countries and those Jews who lived in medieval Germany.[8] Wexler argues that Yiddish began as two distinct languages: Judeo-French (Western Yiddish) and a Judeo-Sorbian dialect spoken in eastern Germany. The former died out while the latter formed the basis for the later Yiddish language.[7]: 69[9][10] Eastern Yiddish, he theorizes, is derived from the intersection of Sorbian Jews who spoke Yiddish and Slavic speaking descendants of the Khazars.[7]: 70 He theorizes this second relexification of Eastern Yiddish took place in the 15th century, at which time the descendants of the Khazars no longer spoke a Turkic language but rather a mixed Slavo-Turkic.[7]: 55

In 1990, Wexler published a book titled The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past in which he argued that Modern Hebrew is not a direct continuation of the Hebrew language, but rather a Slavic language. He argued that Modern Hebrew was simply Yiddish relexified to Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, and based on his arguments that Yiddish is a Slavic language derived from Sorbian, he argued that Modern Hebrew can be considered a Slavic language.[11]

Wexler considers it possible that the Slavicized descendants of the Khazars immigrated north and westward, causing some Eastern Slavic terms for Jewish holidays to becoming part of Western Slavic.[7]: 528 Wexler states that his theory does not require Yiddish to contain a significant Turkic substratum.[7]: 524 Wexler rejects the theory that the differences between Eastern and Western Yiddish were caused by the former's greater exposure to Slavic, instead viewing the two dialects as two largely separate languages.[7]: 69

In his 1993 book he stated that Ashkenazi Jews could be considered ethnically Slavic.[12] He asserts that the Ashkenazi are not of Mediterranean origin.[12] Considering the logical outcome of his linguistic theories to be that Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of Iranian, Turkic, and Slavic proselytes.[7]: 55[12][13] He has also applied his linguistic theories to Sephardic Jews suggesting similarly that they are in fact also of non-Jewish origin, originating from Berber proselytes rather than from Spain.[7]: 55[14]

Herbert Paper in his 1995 paper on two of Wexler books rejects two of Wexler’s theories: first, that Yiddish is derived from an undiscovered Judeo-Sorbian language and secondly that Modern Hebrew is in fact a Slavic language.[6]: 184 He prefers to describe languages Max Weinreich described as Eastern and Western Knaanic as, rather, Judeo-Slavic.[15] In more recent work, Wexler has proposed three origins of Yiddish, by dividing it into two distinct languages: he regards Western Yiddish as a Judaized German; Eastern Yiddish is interpreted as developing from Judeo-Slavic relexified to High German and then to again to Yiddish. He has also argued however that that eastern Yiddish is a relexification of Judeo-Turkic and linked to the Khazars and Karaites.[6]: 184[7]: 69

Wexler's methodology is considered inconsistent with the accepted methods of historical linguistics. Since these methods demonstrate that Yiddish is descended from Old High German, his beliefs about the origin of Eastern Yiddish are considered to be "in the realm of unsupported speculation."[16]

Paul Wexler's theories on both Yiddish and the Turkic-Iranian-Khazar origins have been criticized harshly by many other specialists in the field, the majority of whom reject them.[12] Simon Neuberg rebuffs the relexification theory saying that it "seems more of a marketing trick." Steffen Krogh also disagrees with Wexler. Alexander Beider likewise states: "Sometimes I even wonder if he himself believes in what he writes. If he does not believe, but merely wants to provoke, his writings of the last 20 years are oriented just to prove that Jews are not Jews. In this case, there is nothing to discuss."[13]

In 2016, Wexler and geneticist Eran Elhaik co-authored a study that analyzed the geographical origin of Yiddish speakers using their DNA. They claimed that the DNA has originated in Northeastern Turkey in four villages whose names were, they argued, derived from the word "Ashkenaz." The predicted location was also on the hub of Silk Road routes and close to the Khazarian Empire, as predicted by Wexler and in contrast with the predictions of the Rhineland hypothesis. The authors argue that this is where a non-Germanic "pre-Yiddish" was developed as an undocumented language for trade and that with the Judaization of Slavs it acquired its alleged Slavic component.[17]


In 1988, Wexler was suspected by some Yiddish scholars of having written, under the Ukrainian pseudonym Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj, a harshly-worded review in the journal Language of their work contained in the volume "Origins of the Yiddish Language".[18] While criticising others, the writer excluded Wexler's work, contained in the same volume, from criticism.[13] After strong protests were raised at the putative fraud by one of the editors in particular, Dovid Katz, and evidence suggested that the review had all the hallmarks of Wexler's polemical style and that the submission had been sent from the address of one of Wexler's relatives. The journal where it was published, Language, later published an "apology" and retracted the review.[19] [13][20]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ George Johnson, Scholars Debate Roots of Yiddish, Migration of Jews New York Times 29 October 1996.
  2. ^ Rose Kaplan, [1] Tablet (magazine)26 April 2016.
  3. ^ Kutzix, Jordan (28 April 2016). "Don't Buy the Junk Science That Says Yiddish Originated in Turkey". The Forward. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  4. ^ Paul Wexler (1992), "From Serb Lands to Sorb Lands," in The Balkan Substratum of Yiddish: A Reassessment of the Unique Romance and Greek Components, Harrassowitz Verlag, 1992, p. 111
  5. ^ Philologos, 'The Origins of Yiddish, Part Dray,' The Forward20 July 2014.
  6. ^ a b c Bernard Spolsky, The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History, Cambridge University Press 2014 p.184.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Paul Wexler, Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish: Jews, Sorbs, Khazars, and the Kiev-Polessian, Walter de Gruyter 2002 pp.9,55-56.71.
  8. ^ Alexander Beider, Origins of Yiddish Dialects, Oxford University Press, 2015 p.526.
  9. ^ Deborah Hertz, 'Contacts and Relations in the Pre-Emancipation Period: A Comment,' in R. Po-Chia Hsia, Hartmut Lehmann, (eds.) In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, Cambridge University Press, 2002 pp.151-160 p.155.
  10. ^ Paul Wexler,'Languages in Contact: The Case of Rotwelsch and the Two Yiddishes,' R. Po-Chia Hsia, Hartmut Lehmann, (eds.) In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany,] Cambridge University Press, 2002 pp.109-12.
  11. ^ Wexler, Paul: The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past (1990)
  12. ^ a b c d Cherie Woodworth (2014). "Where Did Yiddish Come From?". Retrieved 15 June 2015.
  13. ^ a b c d Batya Ungar-Sargon,'The Mystery of the Origins of Yiddish Will Never Be Solved,' Tablet 23 June 2014.
  14. ^ Paul Wexler, The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews, SUNY Press 2012.
  15. ^ Paul Wexler, Explorations in Judeo-Slavic Linguistics, BRILL 1987 p.x.
  16. ^ Pitfalls of the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) Approach Applied to Human Genetic History: A Case Study of Ashkenazi Jews
  17. ^ Das, R.; Wexler, P.; Pirooznia, M.; Elhaik, E. (2016). "Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz". Genome Biology and Evolution. 8 (4): 1132–1149. doi:10.1093/gbe/evw046. PMC 4860683. PMID 26941229.
  18. ^ 1988. Review of "Origins of the Yiddish Language". Language 64:761-766.
  19. ^ 199. "Apology". Language 67:114.
  20. ^ Dov-Ber Kerler, History of Yiddish Studies: Papers from the Third Annual Oxford Winter Symposium in Yiddish Language and Literature, 13-15 December 1987, Taylor & Francis, 1991 pp=149-152.