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The Khazarian Hypothesis and the Nature of Yiddish

Submitted by on February 25, 2013 – 5:16 am 21 Comments |  
[Thanks to Martin W. Lewis, Dave Howard, Dmitry Pruss, Bill Poser, Lev Stesin, David Erschler, Sophia Osminkin, and Igor Solunskiy for a helpful discussion that led to this post!]

The Khazarian hypothesis, namely that Ashkenazi Jewry derives from the Khazars, has recently been revived by Eran Elhaik, a geneticist at John Hopkins University. His article “The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses” appeared in December 2012 in Genome Biology and Evolution and was widely publicized before the actual publication. The two hypotheses compared in this article depict Eastern European Jews as a group that either “emerged from a small group of German Jews who migrated eastward and expanded rapidly” (Rhineland hypothesis) or “descended from the Khazars, an amalgam of Turkic clans” (Khazarian hypothesis). According to the abstract, Elhaik “applied a wide range of population genetic analyses” and found evidence to support the Khazarian hypothesis.

The Khazarian hypothesis is most strongly associated with the noted Hungarian-Jewish polymath Arthur Koestler, who advanced the hypothesis in The Thirteenth Tribe, published in 1976. The Khazars were a nomadic tribal confederacy that established a strong, trade-based state centered in the lower Volga River during the early Middle Ages. Their elite stratum definitely converted to Judaism, although it is unknown how deeply the religion penetrated into the rest of their diverse society. Although Koestler’s arguments were intriguing, solid evidence in support has been lacking, and most recent genetic studies have indicated that the Khazarian contribution to European Jewry was minimal at best. Until the publication of Elhaik’s work, the Khazarian thesis was all but defunct.


Razib Khan wrote an eminently sensible critique of the genetic, historical, and geographical errors in Elhaik’s article, focusing on his unsubstantiated use of Armenians as a genetic proxy for the Khazars. The genetic affinity between Jews—and not only those of Eastern European ancestry, but other Jewish groups as well—and Armenians has been noted at least as far back as 2000, when Nebel et al. found a connection between Jewish groups worldwide and other peoples living in the north of the Fertile Crescent, such as Kurds, Turks, and Armenians. Elhaik’s use of Armenians as the proxy for Khazarian DNA which reveals a profound lack of understanding of historical geography. Razib Khan writes:

“If you look at the modern state of Armenia this is eminently reasonable. But for most of its history Armenia was a marginal Caucasian nation, with its center of gravity further south, straddling Anatolia and western Iran, and looming over the plains of Mesopotamia. The Caucasian nature of modern Armenia is to a great extent a function of the extermination of Armenians from much of eastern Anatolia in the early 20th century.”

Thus, if one wants to be historically accurate, one should treat Armenians as a northern Fertile Crescent group, not a Caucasian one. But equally important, the Khazars were not exactly a Caucasian nation either: their capital was in the Volga delta, and most of their empire was in the steppe zone, as the map posted on the left shows. As Khan writes, and I second, the real “smoking gun” would be genetic links with East Asian populations: as the Khazars were Turkic, “they would have had substantial proportions of East Asian ancestry”, but no East Asian traces in the Jewish gene pool have been reported by Elhaik or anyone else, as far as I know.

Elhaik commits many other errors of historical geography. In the abstract alone, he claims that the Khazars “converted to Judaism… in the 8th century”, whereas it was mostly their aristocracy that converted. He takes the conjecture that “following the collapse of their empire, the Judeo-Khazars fled to Eastern Europe” as a proven fact. He talks of “Caucasus, European, and Semitic ancestries” as if these were commensurate categories, and not a mountain range, a sub-continent, and a language family. He also proposes to explain major difference among populations of the Caucasus by the early presence of Judeans in the Southern and Central Caucasus, while in actuality a huge array of genetic diversity exists in the Caucasus regardless of Jewish population.

Yiddish dictionary

But problems with Elhaik’s paper are not limited to those of historical geography. In the discussion section, he ties his flawed findings to even worse linguistic theories, specifically to the idea that Yiddish, the language of Central and Eastern European Jews, “began as a Slavic language that was re-lexified to High German at an early date”. The preponderance of Germanic words in Yiddish is clear from the page from the Shemot Devarim, a Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary and thesaurus, published by Elia Levita in 1542 and reproduced on the left. The theory that Yiddish is a Slavic language was originally proposed by Paul Wexler in his 1993 book The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, a sequel of sorts to his 1990 book in which he argues that Modern Hebrew too is a Slavic language, re-lexified to Biblical Hebrew. Considering Wexler’s book on Hebrew would take us too far afield, but what about this idea that Yiddish is really a Slavic language?

First, it seems odd that a Turkic people who moved to Europe via Romania and Hungary would somehow acquire a Slavic language on the way. No traces of Turkic, Romance, or Uralic linguistic influences have ever been identified in Yiddish. Second, no clear cases have been described in which a language changes most or all of its vocabulary drawing on that of another language. If such a transformation were to happen, the old form of the language and the new one would be mutually incomprehensible, so it is hardly likely that either its speakers or linguists would use the same label for it, as if it were the same language. Many instances of language shift have been attested, but they are always described as a shift from one language to another, not a switch from one form of a language to a mutually incomprehensible one.

Sorbian map

But most crucially, Yiddish is not only non-Slavic in its vocabulary, but also in its grammar. This is particularly obvious if we compare Yiddish to Sorbian: the former is a Germanic language with some Slavic influences, whereas the latter is a Slavic language with Germanic influences. Let’s consider Sorbian first, which makes a fitting comparison for Yiddish because both modern Sorbian varieties—Upper and Lower Sorbian—are surrounded by German-speaking territory. Neither Sorbian-speaking group has an autonomous region of its own:

“Upper Sorbs live mostly in southern Lusatia in Saxony and Lower Sorbs in the Niederlausitz region; they have long been an ethnic minority in Germany. Sorbian monolingualism ceased before World War II; nearly all Upper Sorbian speakers are fully bilingual in German and use primarily German; Lower Sorbian is serious endangered. Both languages show significant impact of contact with German, change which has been almost entirely unidirectional.” (Lenore A. Grenoble, “Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages”, p. 588)

One example of German grammatical influence on Sorbian is the merger of the two uses of the instrumental case. Grenoble describes “the pan-Slavic pattern” as making “a distinction between the instrumental or absolute use of the instrumental case, which does not occur with a preposition, and the instrumental of accompaniment, which is used with the preposition ‘with’” (ibid). For example, compare the Russian Ja rabotaju golovoj (literally, ‘I work head.INSTR’) with Ja rabotaju s Martinom (literally, ‘I work with Martin.INSTR’). In Upper Sorbian, however, “these two usages are collapsed and are found only with the preposition z ‘with’” (ibid). Compare the Upper Sorbian Ja dźělam z ruku ‘I work with my hand’ (instrument) and Ja rěčг z prěćelom ‘I speak with my friend’ (accompaniment).

But while this example illustrates German grammatical influence on Sorbian, it also underscores the underlying Slavic grammar of the language: like most other Slavic tongues, Sorbian maintains a rich system of seven cases (including the vocative) and marks them on the nouns themselves. In comparison, Yiddish has only four cases and marks them on the determiners such as the article ‘the’. Furthermore, Sorbian adjectives decline according to the same seven cases as nouns; when an adjective is used to modify a noun, they must agree in case. Yiddish, in contrast, do not mark cases on adjectives; instead, there are different forms are used for adjectives in attributive (i.e. modifying) and predicative positions. For example, the form of the adjective ‘good’ in Yiddish is different in ‘The good man left’ and ‘The man is good’—much like in German or Norwegian, and as it used to be in Ye Olde English period. Sorbian is also noted for its retention of the dual number, a special form used in reference to two objects, as opposed to one (singular) or three or more (plural). Common Slavic had a dual number and most modern Slavic languages retain some vestiges of it. In modern Russian, for instance, the former dual is reflected in the forms of some modern plurals in which the stem-final velars k and x palatalized into č and š (e.g. Russian oči ‘eyes’ and uši ‘ears’). The older dual is also to blame for the fact that a different form of a noun is used with ‘two’ (extended also to numerals ‘three’ and ‘four’), as opposed to ‘five’ and up: for example, one says dva mal’čika (literally ‘two boy’ in the genitive singular), but pjat’ mal’čikov (literally ‘five boys’ in the genitive plural). In modern Sorbian, two hands is ruce, but three or more hands is ruki. Yiddish, in contrast, has no dual, and neither do other Germanic languages.

When it comes to syntax, Sorbian and Yiddish differ as to the order of major sentence constituents: Yiddish exhibits the Verb-Second phenomenon: the finite verb—auxiliary if one is present, and the lexical verb otherwise—must appear in the second position in a main clause. For example, in the sentence Oyfn veg vet dos yingl zen a kats (literally ‘On the way will the boy see a cat’), the auxiliary vet ‘will’ appears right after the prepositional phrase oyfn veg ‘on the way’ rather than after the subject dos yingl ‘the boy’, unlike in the corresponding English sentence On the way, the boy will see a cat, where both ‘on the way’ and the subject must precede the verb. In fact, English is the only Germanic language that lacks the Verb-Second (except in some marginal sentence types). As illustrated below, Dutch, German, Swedish all exhibit the Verb-Second pattern (as does Icelandic):

a. Dutch:

Gisteren          las       ik         dit        boek.

yesterday         read     I           the       book

b. German:

Gestern           las       ich       dieses Buch.

yesterday         read     I           the       book

c. Swedish:

Igår                 läste    jag       denna bok.

yesterday         read     I           the       book

In contrast to Yiddish and other Germanic languages, Sorbian does not have the Verb-Second pattern. In sum, the grammatical profiles of Yiddish and Sorbian are completely different, with Sorbian being a bona fide Slavic language and Yiddish a well-behaved Germanic one.


This is not to say that Yiddish has not had any grammatical influences from Slavic languages. Along with numerous borrowed nouns, especially terms of a culturally or geographically specific nature such as plant and animal names, foods, etc., Yiddish picked up a few morphological and syntactic patterns from its Slavic neighbors. For instance, Yiddish has borrowed a number of derivational morphemes, such as the agentive -nik (as in nudnik ‘bore’ from nudne ‘boring’) and the diminutives -tshik and -ke. An example of Slavic syntactic influence on Yiddish comes from the domain of multiple interrogatives. Note that in English—as in other Germanic languages—only one question word can appear in the beginning: Who bought what? but not *Who what bought? In Slavic languages all question words must appear sentence-initially, as in the Russian Kto čto kupil? (literally ‘Who what bought?’). Interestingly, multiple questions in Yiddish reveal both its Germanic roots and its contact with Slavic languages. In accordance with the Germanic pattern, one can place only one question word sentence-initially (in which case the other question word must appear before the non-finite lexical verb, if there is one), as in Ver hot vos gekoyft? (literally, ‘who has what bought?’). Alternatively, one can employ the Slavic pattern and place all question words sentence-initially, as in Ver vos hot gekoyft? (literally, ‘Who what has bought?’). Yet, despite those Slavic influences, Yiddish retains the overall grammatical profile of a Germanic language, while Sorbian—despite centuries of German influence—retains its Slavic grammar. In this respect, the two languages could not be more different.




Grenoble, Lenore A. (2010) “Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages”. In: Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact. Wiley Blackwell. Pp. 581-597.

Koestler, Arthur (1976) The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage. NY: Random House.

Nebel A, Filon D, Weiss D, Weale M, Faerman M, Oppenheim A, Thomas M (2000) “High-resolution Y chromosome haplotypes of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs reveal geographic substructure and substantial overlap with haplotypes of Jews”. Hum Genet 107:630–641.

Wexler, Paul (1990) The schizoid nature of modern Hebrew: A Slavic language in search of a Semitic past (Mediterranean language and culture monograph series). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

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

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  • David Schwartz

    Well done and executed, I found this to be an excellent critique of the matter at hand.

    Though with all this said It would be interesting to try to do a more in depth piece on the Khazars though information on them is a bit thin.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, we might follow your suggestion and do a more detailed piece about the khazars…

      • David Schwartz

        It would be great but I would understand if you didn’t.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          We are always happy to have suggestions from the readers, so thank you!

  • Tim Upham

    The oldest Indo-European words in Yiddish are of Latin and Old French origin, thus defining the West European origin of the Yiddish language. The Khazar language is extinct, and the only modern equivalent to it is Chuvash. There is speculation that the world “yarmulke” came from Turkic origin. But if Judaism was as wide-spread among the Khazars, the ways Arthur Koestler speculated in his book “The Thirteenth Tribe,” then the Ashkenazim would have had more of a Turkic influence in their language. Khazar graveyards show a change in burial practices starting in the 10th C.E., but burial practices show more of an influence, as oppose to changes in religious beliefs. It is seen now, that Judaism was accepted by the royalty and their military, as oppose to the overall population. But Vladimir Lenin was a mixture of German, Swedish, Jewish, Chuvash, and Kalmyk. He was a true product of the waves of people who came across the Russian steppes. Even though he was baptized and raised in the Russian Orthodox Church.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the additional info on Khazar burial practices.

      It is actually incorrect, though, to say that “the oldest Indo-European words in Yiddish are of Latin and Old French origin”—while there were some earlier borrowings from French, they are in no sense “older” than the Germanic vocabulary…

      • Tim Upham

        You may want to take that up with Max Weinreich, who wrote the book “They History of the Yiddish Language.” The vocabulary in Medieval High German might be the same age as the Old French and Latin vocabulary words. But when were they incorporated into the Yiddish language? Because obviously Polish was not incorporated into the Yiddish language, until the Ashkenazim entered in large numbers into the Polish kingdom during the 14th century. For the Polish “platke” became the Yiddish “latke.”

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Those French loans could not have been incorporated into Yiddish before Yiddish (a Germanic language) existed. And yes, of course Polish/Russian/etc. Slavic words came later. And not so much into Western Yiddish either…

          • Tim Upham

            From the age of those words in Latin and Old French, Weinreich says they were in there before they moved up into the Rhine River valley, In the trading cities of the Rhine River valley, that is where Yiddish picked up its predominate Medieval HIgh German.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Yes it is widely agreed that some Jews from what is now France came to Rhine valley and that Yiddish was formed after that even if Jews lived in the Rhine valley since Roman time…

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  • BenjiNutteryahoo

    Are you able to provide any proof only a small portion of Khazar converted?

    Also, without mass conversion can anyone explain the statistical impossibility of the growth in the European Jewish population?

    Both questions can only be answered by “No”.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      As mentioned in the post, historical evidence (i.e. written documents) indicate that “The [Khazarian] elite stratum definitely converted to Judaism, although it is
      unknown how deeply the religion penetrated into the rest of their
      diverse society.” Genetic evidence does not show massive Khazar admiture either. So although we don’t have a direct proof that only a small proportion of Khazars converted, we do not have any evidence to show that the majority of them did. If such evidence is ever discovered, it should be closely considered, just as is done in this post. If it withstands scrutiny, the current hypothesis will have to be revised, but short of that we have all the indications for only a small influence on Khazars on the Jewish people as a whole.

      As for the growth of European Jewish population, the way I understand it, it is rather easily explained by relatively high fertility and relatively low (child) mortality that together allowed this rapid growth. There was probably some amount of local conversion throughout the times, but not necessarily a one-time admixture event. The high frequency of a whole boucket of Jewish genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs and others also indicates that the exponential growth rather than massive admixture is to blame.

      • BenjiNutteryahoo

        Maybe, we don’t know, no evidence….

        And your “high fertility” is laughable.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          No, it’s your “know all” attitude and having no hard facts to support your objections is laughable.

          • EarlHigh

            As you Are a rather sensitive little fellow and blocked my other account, here I am again.I do not “know all “.
            Next, I am not the one who is making statements as fact , I am asking those who have made the statement if they have fact. You have no facts to back up your Khazar Conversion theory, and when I asked for fact you posted information that was completely full of maybe, we don’t know, and we think.

            In the high fertility reason for the massive increase in the number of Jews in Europe is laughable.

  • Temujin Timeagain

    I hate to say this, but both you and Razib have me scratching my head. Unfortunately this issue elicits much passion and not a lot of deep scientific thought.

    First of all, Elhaik has engaged this issue as a scientist who understands the potential and limitations of this kind of ‘test’. He sees the part it could play in disease studies and the fact that there are movements to use DNA tests for the “right of return”. I hope I am not the only person creeped out by the political use of DNA tests. His methodology is very, very good (not perfect, no one is) and his use of hypothesis puts him in much more respectable shape than Nedel, even if results support ideas that many find hard to stomach.

    Second of all, I am not sure your ArmenianCaucasian idea is as strong as you think. Do you guys know where Vagharshapat is? The center of gravity idea that Razib pushes has me puzzled. I agree that the Caucasus and surrounding areas are of great linguistic and ethnic complexity, but I can’t really see the Armenian side of this as all that troubling, but I can see it as suggestive of what the next study would look like. And I think you and Razib would impress me quite a bit more with some serious suggestions about how to improve the next study. My basic idea: sample (probably geographically stratified, at that) Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Kurds, Armenians, Georgians, Turks of all kinds (Siberia to Serbia!), and every Fertile Crescent group and every Iranian group and every Caucasus group from Circassians and Chechens to Kalmyks and Russians and every European group who lived near a substantial Ashkenaz or Sephardi settlement.

    As for language, given the amount of time we are talking about, that seems even less of an issue. People learn languages that their ancestors didn’t speak. I have lots of Norman-English ancestory, but I also have a second cousin whose third cousin headed the UJA. The fact that they all speak English doesn’t make them Norman/Anglo-Saxon. Razib certainly doesn’t become English by speaking it, any more than I would become a Bengali by my speaking some Bangla.

    I put out firmly that I think Elhaik looks very good, given the financial limitations of this study. And I think the backlash is largely undeserved, even Razib was unable to really discredit Elhaik’s methodology. And I think it is very telling that people don’t seem to be lining up to fund additional research to complement Eran’s work–hopefully I just lack the information on forthcoming studies.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I will have to disagree with you: my problem with Elhaik’s work is with his methodology and sampling, not his conclusion. You say that it is “very, very good”—but why? What counterarguments do you have against the concerns expressed in the post?

      • william wright

        It is perfectly obvious that a conversion to Judaism by the Khazar nobility had to have spread widely throughout the Khazar population after two centuries time, as Jack Ross notes. Thousands of Jews in the center of the old Khazar Empire show red hair, slant eyes, large noses, distorted lips, bat ears and all the other characteristics of the ancient Khazars as recorded by travelers and visitors. To think that the self-evident facts do not mean what they appear to mean is Zionist dialectics. If they look like Khazars, fight like Khazaras, worship their own phalluses like Khazars and reside in precisely the territory of the old Khazar Empire, then they must be Khazars.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          “Thousands of Jews in the center of the old Khazar Empire show red hair,
          slant eyes, large noses, distorted lips, bat ears and all the other
          characteristics of the ancient Khazars” — what on earth are you talking about? There’s barely any Jews in what used to be the Khazar Empire… And I’ve never met any Jews that look like what you describe.

          “If they look like Khazars…” — by this logic neither the African American Baptists, nor Scandinavian Lutherans and not Philippino Catholics are really Christian: they don’t look one bit like the first Christians (who were Middle Eastern).

  • dr_mabeuse

    The idea of a Khazar origin to Ashenazik Jewishness is a lovely and romantic notion, but just doesn’t compute, especially in religious terms. It’s hard to discern in Ashkenazic literature and lore any trace of the noble and politically powerful heritage that a Khazar origin would no doubt have left on a people so given to historic remembrance. They very humility of East European Jewishness would seem to argue against a beginning among the Khazar elite.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      The main rot of eastern european Jewry is in Germany but it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have incorporated a Khazar stand. But you make a good point about the lack of both elitist customs and typical Khazar lore…