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At the Moscow State University he studied theoretical linguistics (1971) and structural linguistics (1973). He defended his Ph.D. in 1981 (Sostav i xarakteristika balkanoslavjanskix jazykov), on the comparative analysis of Balto-Slavic languages. Until 1990 he worked at the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies in Moscow, where he completed his second doctoral thesis in 1989 (Sravniteľno-istoričeskaja grammatika albanskogo jazyka: fonetika i morfologija.), on the historical grammar of Albanian.
In the period 1989-1990 he also taught historical linguistics at Moscow State University. After his emigration to Israel he continued to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1991-1992). Later he relocated to the Tel-Aviv University, where he taught in the Department of Classical Studies in the period of 1992-97, on comparative linguistics, mythology and folklore, history and philosophy. In 1994 he worked at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem when he was dedicated to the biblical studies, and the following two years acting as a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford. The last two years in Israel (1997-99) he spent at Bar-Ilan University.
Afterward he went to Calgary in Canada, where he started to work at Zi Corporation as a director of research and language teaching (2001-02). After a brief activity at the Princeton University in New Jersey (2001-02), where he worked in the department of testing services, he started to work at the universities in Alberta, Canada, specifically Athabasca University (since 2003), Mount Royal College (since 2003), University of Calgary (since 2004), University of Lethbridge (2004-05). There he lectured on comparative linguistics, Biblical Studies, as well as on also business English, English literature, creative writing, etc. Since 2005, he ran the Translation Center at the Calgary Regional Health Authority.
Even though he worked only three decades as a professional research linguist, Orel's work encompassed extraordinary variety of interests: from Slavic via modern Balkan languages to Paleo-Balkan languages (most notably Phrygian), from Proto-Indo-European roots and its Nostratic context on one side, to the analysis of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament texts and Proto-Afroasiatic language on the other side.
He has left behind about 200 articles and over two dozen reviews. Above all, however, are 6 monographs, four of which are etymological dictionaries (with the unassuming titles such as "Handbook of Germanic etymology" actually hiding a full etymological dictionary). Finally, the 3rd part of his "Russian etymological dictionary" (which was already termed as "new Vasmer") was unfinished due to his premature death.
His "Albanian Etymological Dictionary" (1998) is a particularly useful overview of existing etymologies, and it well complements his "Albanian Historical Grammar" (2000).
Monograph "Phrygian Language" (1997) summarizes the old/neo-Phyrigian epigraphy, interpretation of all the known inscriptions until the 1990s and the corresponding grammatical comments.
Orel also dealt with the Indo-European languages, especially with Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Albanian and Celtic branches. He also took interest in Semitic languages, Hebrew in the first place, and more broadly in Afroasiatic languages as a whole, where lie his most controversial results. Through collaboration with Olga Stolbova he published "Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary" (1995) which on one hand brought a number of interesting and new sub-lexical comparison, especially Semitic-Chadic. On the other hand, the value of the benefits of reduced transcriptions used and inaccurate translations, absence of primary sources for non-written languages, and especially countless pseudo-reconstructions formulated ad hoc often on two or even a single word were seriously frowned upon by the specialists, which also pointed out to some other serious errors in the work (especially in Cushitic material, as well as not neglecting massive amount Arabic borrowings in Berberic languages).
He published the following monographs:
- (together with Olga Stolbova) Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary. Leiden: Brill, 1995 (578 pp.)
- The Language of Phrygians. Ann Arbor: Caravan Books, 1997 (501 pp.)
- Albanian Etymological Dictionary. Leiden: Brill, 1998 (670 pp.)
- A Concise Historical Grammar of Albanian. Leiden: Brill, 2000 (350 pp.)
- Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden: Brill, 2003 (700 pp.)
- Russian Etymological Dictionary. Vol. 1. Calgary: Octavia, 2007 (400 pp.)
- Russian Etymological Dictionary. Vol. 2. Calgary: Octavia, 2007 (400 pp.)
- Russian Etymological Dictionary, Vol. 3. Calgary: Octavia, 2008.
- Blažek, Václav (2008). "In Memoriam:Vladimir Orel" (DOC).