The Origins of Yiddish—A Response to Philologos, Part 1

Aug 20, 2014 by

[Many thanks to Merlin Dorfman for bringing the Philologos’ essay to my attention and to Martin W. Lewis for his helpful comments and corrections to this post!]

The Jewish Daily Forward has recently published a four-part essay by “Philologos” on the origins of Yiddish (see here, here, here, and here). While the essay is well-researched and superbly written, I do feel that some clarifications, corrections, and a more in-depth look at some aspects of this problem are in order. Inspired by both Philologos’ original essay and the Jewish Passover tradition revolving around the number four, this response is quadripartite. I begin by summarizing the four (!) hypotheses relating to the origin of Yiddish reviewed by Philologus.

birthplace_yiddishThe first hypothesis, both in chronological terms and in regard to its popularity among both linguists and historians (the near-consensus, one might say), is the so-called “Rhineland hypothesis”, first developed by eminent Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, to whom the famous definition of a language as “a dialect with an army and a navy” also belongs.* According to this scenario, Yiddish originated as the Germanic tongue of the Jews who settled about 1,000 years ago in the Rhine Valley, especially in town such as Mainz, Worms, and Speyer. These Jews came mostly from what is now France and (northern) Italy and originally spoke a Jewish version of a Romance language that was only beginning to diverge into (Old) French and (Old) Italian at that time. (The issue of when we can start calling French and Italian distinct languages rather than dialects of an undifferentiated Romance language is discussed in detailed in the forthcoming book, co-authored by Martin W. Lewis and myself, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, to be published by Cambridge University Press.) Having resettled in what is today western Germany, these Jews—who will later be known as Ashkenazi Jews, after Ashkenaz, the Hebrew term for Germany—began to speak a Germanic language, into which they brought elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, the primary languages of Jewish scholarship. This fusion of a Hebrew-Aramaic component with a Germanic dialect gave birth to Yiddish, according to the Rhineland scenario.

The second hypothesis, the so-called “Bavarian scenario” (or “Regensburg hypothesis”, as Philologos calls it), was pioneered by Alice Faber and Robert King and further developed by Dovid Katz (see Faber and King 1984, Faber 1987, King 1988, Katz 1993, and other works by these authors). This theory places the origins of Yiddish not in west-central Germany but rather in the southeastern part of the country, more precisely “in the vicinity of Regensburg, a trading hub on the Danube whose Jewish community… had become the home of illustrious rabbis by the end of the 12th century”, writes Philologos. According to this theory, Loter and Ashkenazi Jews were originally two distinct groups, with divergent settlement histories and cultural networks, with the latter rather than the former group pioneering Yiddish as we know it. Loter Jews of the Rhineland, Faber and King claim, were more tightly connected with the Jews of Provence and Spain (Sepharad in Hebrew) and spoke a distinct (if also Germanic) linguistic variety. For lack of a better term, this dialect can be labeled “westernmost Western Yiddish” (see Jacobs 2005: 14), to distinguish it from “easternmost Western Yiddish”, which gave rise to Eastern Yiddish during the eastward expansion of the Jews (forced largely by the violence of the First Crusade). (Today, Eastern Yiddish is variant best known both within and outside Jewish circles, as Western Yiddish is much more severely endangered; only about 5,000 people speak Western Yiddish, while Eastern Yiddish is spoken by about 1.5 million people, according to the Ethnologue.)

Sorbian map

The third theory, which I will call “the Sorbian scenario”, was advocated primarily by Paul Wexler (Wexler 1987, 1991, 1993). It places the origins of Yiddish not with Germanic-speaking Jews of either western or southeastern Germany but rather with the Slavic-speaking Jews of what is now east-central Germany. According to Wexler, Yiddish originated as a Slavic language, based on Sorbian (which is now an umbrella term for two West Slavic languages—Upper and Lower Sorbian—both of which are now spoken in areas surrounded by German speakers; see the map on the left). Due to the westward migration of these Judeo-Sorbian-speaking Jews, their Slavic language came into contact with the Germanic tongue of the Loter Jews (“westernmost Western Yiddish”, as per the Bavarian scenario) and became “re-lexified” with Germanic-derived words. Simply put, former speakers of Judeo-Sorbian retained their Slavic mother tongue while borrowing many German words. This mixed language was not unlike the tongue of freshly-arrived Russian immigrants in the United States today and “nouveau riches” in Russia, who tend to insert English words into their otherwise Russian-structured language, saying things like “Which watch?” for What time is it? (cf. Russian Kotoryj čas? lit. ‘which hour/watch’) or okèšit’ ček for to cash a check (note the verbal morphemes o-, -i, and ‑t’).

Wexler’s hypothesis is a radical and controversial departure from Weinreich’s Rhineland scenario, yet it is not the most outlandish theory discussed by Philologos. He also considers a fourth theory, the Khazarian hypothesis, which received traction from Hungarian-Jewish author Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe. It must be stressed, however, that the Khazarian theory focuses on the origins of Ashkenazi Jews rather than on that of Yiddish per se, although Wexler’s work (particularly Wexler 1993) provided a linguistic boost to this theory. In an earlier post, I criticized a recent genetics article by Eran Elhaik, a geneticist at John Hopkins University, who claims to provide support for the Khazarian hypothesis; Razib Khan also wrote an eminently sensible critique of the genetic, historical, and geographical errors in Elhaik’s article.

Turkic-Language-MapWhatever one might think of the possibility of Khazarian influx into the gene pool of Ashkenazi Jews, it is clear that the language of the Khazars had little if any linguistic impact on Yiddish. The Khazars spoke a Turkic language, related to Turkish, Tatar, and Uzbek. As far as I know, there are no Turkic loanwords in Yiddish that cannot be explained as borrowings via Russian. (Russian, as it so happens, borrowed numerous Turkic words, as discussed in an earlier post.) When it comes to the grammatical profile of Yiddish, it is as un‑Turkic as can be. Here is a sensible description of Turkic languages, from the Wikipedia article on this language family:

“Turkic languages are null-subject languages, have vowel harmony, extensive agglutination by means of suffixes and lack of grammatical articles, noun classes, grammatical gender. Subject–object–verb word order is universal within the family.”

Yiddish, in contrast, is not a null-subject language: its sentences, like those of English, must have a grammatical subject even if the verb does not require a semantic subject (e.g. Es vet bald regənən lit. ‘it goes soon to-rain.’; Jacobs 2005: 226). Yiddish does not have vowel harmony and its morphology is not agglutinative. Unlike Turkic languages, Yiddish has articles (see Jacobs 2005: 172-175) and grammatical gender (see Jacobs 2005: 166-168). Its basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), complemented by the Verb-Second (V2) phenomenon, which we will examine more closely in the following posts.

Setting aside the Khazarian theory as irrelevant to the history of Yiddish, we are left with three viable hypotheses: the Rhineland, Bavarian, and Sorbian scenarios, described above. In part 4 of his essay, Philologos concludes that:

“… the overall issue [of the origins of Yiddish] will ultimately be resolved not by one of the three contending hypotheses — the Rhineland, the Regensburg and the Slavic-Sorbian — triumphing over the others, but by a synthesis of all three. It is, after all, perfectly conceivable that the first Judeo-German speakers were Jews from France who settled in the Rhineland; that some of them then migrated to the Regensburg region of Bavaria, where they were joined by other Jews pushing north from Italy and west from the Balkans; that the Yiddish that became the common language of all of them changed under the influence of local German dialects, and that its speakers then pushed further eastward and northward into Slavic-speaking areas and caused the Jews living there (some of whom may originally have been Khazars) to switch or (using Wexler’s term) “relexify” to Yiddish, too.”**

In some sense Philologos is correct: all three sources have had impact on Yiddish. But the questions of the source and of subsequent influences are distinct issues, similarly to asking where a given river’s source is and what its tributaries are.. The “river” of Yiddish certainly has “waters” from all three locations—the Rhineland, Regensburg, and the Sorbian-speaking lands—but which is the source and which are the tributaries? This is the puzzle we will attempt to tease out in the following posts. Stay tuned for parts tsvey, dray, and fir!



*Note that Neil G. Jacobs in his Yiddish. A Linguistic Introduction refers to Weinreich’s theory as the “Loter scenario”, after a term in Jewish sources corresponding to the German Lothringen; I am going to retain the more commonly used term.

**It must be stressed that “switching” and “relexifying” to another language are not the same thing. “Relexifying” means adopted solely the vocabulary of the target language, while “switching” presumes adopting the target language’s grammar as well.



Elhaik, Eran (2012) The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses. Genome Biology and Evolution 24: 665-681.

Faber, Alice (1987) A tangled web: Whole Hebrew and Ashkenazic origins. In: Dovid Katz (ed.) Origins of the Yiddish Language. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Pp. 15-22.

Faber, Alice and Robert King (1984) Yiddish and the settlement history of Ashkenazic Jewry. Miankind Quartrly 24: 393-425.

Jacobs, Neil G. (2005) Yiddish. A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, Dovid (1993) The phonology of Ashkenazic. In: Lewis Glinert (ed.) Hebrew in Ashkenaz: A language in exile. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 46-87.

King, Robert (1988) Two of Weinreich’s four riddles revisited. In: Dovid Katz (ed.) Dialects of the Yiddish Language. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Pp. 85-98.

Wexler, Paul (1987) Explorations in Judeo-Slavic Linguistics. Leiden: Brill.

Wexler, Paul (1991) Yiddish — the fifteenth Slavic language. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 91.

Wexler, Paul (1993) The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity. Slavica Publishers.

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