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  • Silk Road Linguistics: The Birth of Yiddish and the Multiethnic Jewish Peoples on the Silk Roads, 9–13th Centuries. The Indispensable Role of the Arabs, Chinese, Germans, Iranians, Slavs and Turks by Paul Wexler
  • Tomasz Kamusella
Wexler, Paul. Silk Road Linguistics: The Birth of Yiddish and the Multiethnic Jewish Peoples on the Silk Roads, 9–13th Centuries. The Indispensable Role of the Arabs, Chinese, Germans, Iranians, Slavs and Turks. Studies in Arabic Language and Literature, 10. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2021. Notes. References. Bibliography. Glossary. Indexes. Addenda. xvi + 1412 pp. €198.00 (2-volume hardback and e-book).

This ground-breaking, encyclopaedic monograph is a fitting crown to interdisciplinary historical sociolinguist Paul Wexler’s research career of over six decades that brought him from the United States to Peru and Bolivia, Israel, Central and Eastern Europe, Nigeria, Japan, and recently to Australia. Traditionally-minded historians and linguists consider Wexler an iconoclast, because he dares to cross disciplinary lines and proposes novel hypotheses on the basis of new evidence and critical re-examinations of earlier finds. Thus far, his main claim to fame has been the theory that Yiddish is a Slavic language (Knaanic, or Judeo-Slavic), that in the late medieval and early modern periods was relexicalized with Germanic words (Explorations in Judeo-Slavic Linguistics, Leiden 1987), not unlike academic English, which is a Germanic tongue heavily relexicalized with Romance (that is, French and Latin) words. On this basis, Wexler came to the conclusion that Ivrit (Modern Hebrew) is none other than Yiddish relexicalized with Semitic words. As such, Ivrit is also a Slavic language, but twice removed from the medieval Knaanic’s dialectal (Sorbian) base in Lusatia (or today’s eastern Germany) (see Paul Wexler, The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past, Wiesbaden, 1990). What prevented a calm discussion of Wexler’s theory are the two socio-political norms, developed in Europe, that currently underlie the state and intellectual structures of Western-style modernity. The conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War (1648) yielded the model of the confessionally homogenous territorial state, which in turn spawned the nation-state. In Central Europe, especially, following the Great War (1918), the ethnolinguistically homogenous nation-state became the standard model of legitimate statehood. Until the Holocaust, most of the world’s Jews lived in this region. Under these normative influences, they began to see themselves as a mono-ethnic people (nation) created and confessionally united by Judaism. The Nazi genocide of Jews imbued this understanding with a racialized (biologizing) undertone which brushed off onto the new secular definition of Jewishness, as adopted in Israel. In addition, the polity is none other than a Central European ethnolinguistic nation-state located in the Middle East, with Ivrit having the function of its national language.

Wexler’s theories and findings roam freely across the length and breadth of Eurasia and North Africa and often contradict these recent political norms, [End Page 355] much to various ideologues’ displeasure. The opus magnum under review emerged late during the first decade of the twenty-first century from Wexler’s attempt to plug the gap in scholarship with a sorely missing etymological dictionary of Yiddish (p. 21). He soon realized that such a dictionary had not been attempted earlier because the origins of common Yiddish words push lexicographers toward Slavic and other languages, well beyond German, with which Yiddish is traditionally coupled on cultural and ideological grounds (despite the fact that the Holocaust was planned and carried out by Germans). Early into the project, Wexler realized that he would not be able to do justice to the task because influences, be it on Knaanic, Yiddish or other Jewish languages that then fed into modern Yiddish (and Ivrit), touch upon too many ethnolinguistic and confessional groups strewn across Eurasia (including North Africa) during the past two millennia. Each linguistically-and historiographically-evidenced answer to an etymological issue tended to generate more questions that also needed to be looked into. In turn, his expansive work centres on the discussion and dictionary-style presentation of the origins and relations of almost 300 lexemes (or their groups), termed ‘Afro-Eurasian elements in Yiddish’ (pp...