Wexler's Conversions - Part 2 (Forward, June 11, 1993)

Paul Wexler's revolutionary thesis, discussed in this column last week, that Yiddish developed as the language of originally Slavic-speaking rather than German-speaking Jews strikes one at first glance as counter-intuitive. After all, not only do most of the grammatical features of Yiddish and roughly 75% of its vocabulary (as opposed to perhaps 10% Slavic words) derive from German, Yiddish speakers themselves often referred to their language as taitsh, “German”, or ivri-taitsh, “Hebrew-German.” One would therefore need extremely compelling reasons to think that Yiddish did not originate as a Germanic tongue, especially since the many hundreds of years spent by Yiddish-speaking Jews in Slavic lands would appear quite sufficient to account for Yiddish's Slavic features without having to resort to a theory of Slavic genesis. What does Mr. Wexler think these reasons are?

Broadly speaking, he groups them into three categories:
1. Reasons for believing that the “Western Yiddish” spoken in parts of Germany, Holland, Switzerland and elsewhere before it became extinct in the last two centuries was a different language entirely from Eastern-European Yiddish and could not possibly have been the latter's “parent,” as has been commonly assumed.
2. Reasons for believing that many of the Slavic words in Yiddish did not originate in Eastern Europe, but rather in what today is eastern and southeastern Germany--the area inhabited b the supposed Sorbian-speaking Jews with whom, Mr. Wexler thinks, Eastern-European Yiddish began.
3. Reasons for believing that there are features of Eastern-European Yiddish that can be better accounted for by a Slavic than a German genesis.

The reasons in the first group have to do with the fact that Western and Eastern-European Yiddish differ more in grammar and vocabulary than might be expected if the second descended from the first. To take one example Whereas Western Yiddish has a large number of Latinate words in it, which is consistent with the assumption that it developed in Western Germany among Jews who arrived there from Italy and France, Eastern-Yiddish has very few. Thus, the Western Yiddish verb doormen, “to sleep” (cf. French dormir, Italian dormire,) does not exist in the East; the Western Yiddish piltsl, “a girl” (cf. Latin pulcella,) is a maydl in Eastern Europe; Western oren, “to pray” (cf. Latin orare,) is Eastern davenen, etc. Of course, some of these substitutions might have occurred anyway if Western Yiddish had been carried to the East, but the sheer quantity of them, Mr. Wexler argues, makes such a hypothesis unlikely.

And yet paradoxically--which brings us to the second group of reasons--Western Yiddish has a sizable Slavic lexicon that is hard to explain in terms of a steadily eastward migration of Yiddish speakers away from the West. How did words like nebekh, blintze and koylitsh (a braided challah), all clearly Slavic in origin, get into the Yiddish spoken in Germany and Holland? The traditional theory assumes that they were brought back the West by Jewish traders and travelers, but Mr. Wexler claims that there are too many of them to be explained in this way. There must have been, he argues, an original population of Eastern Yiddish speakers who migrated not only further eastward, but also westward, bringing a Slavic vocabulary with them—and the only place to locate such a. population is in Eastern Germany, which was a Slave region until Germans pushed into it in the Middle Ages in which some 70,000 speakers of the Slavic language called Sorbian still live today.

Finally, there are aspects of Eastern-European Yiddish, Mr. Wexler holds, that simply do not make sense if one posits a non-Slavic origin for the language. Why, unless one assumes that the Slavic component in Yiddish chronologically preceded the German component, did the Yiddish spoken even in non-Slavic countries like Romania and Hungary have so many Slavic words in it as opposed to so few borrowed from Romanian and Hungarian? Why does the Yiddish of Eastern Europe sometimes seem to resemble a simplified or imperfectly learned German when compared with the Yiddish of the West? (Mr. Wexler cites as an example the loss in Eastern Yiddish of the German past tense, which is replaced by the German present perfect, so that whereas in German and Western Yiddish “I saw” is ich sah and “I have seen” is ich hab(e) gesehen, in Eastern Yiddish ikh hob gezeyn doubles for both meanings.) Why do many Eastern Yiddish verbal prefixes,  although they are etymologically Germanic. function as though they were really Slavic--the prefix far-, for instance, which often, unlike the Germ aver- but like the Slavic za-, gives the verb following it a sense of intensified or continued action, as in Yiddish farkholemen, to be sunk in dreams or to daydream, from kholemen, to dream?