On Vadim Temkin’s surname

(A guest posting from Vadim Temkin, reproducing (without editing, so I can hear Vadim’s actual voice in all of this) a note in his Facebook notes yesterday about a section in my posting “Mourning Son” on  that same day)


Portrait of a thoughtful Vadim, by Sergey Zhupanov

On my surname

My friend and preeminent linguist Arnold Zwicky wrote about my Morning Sun post and ventured into pronunciation of my surname:

Bonus on Vadim’s name. I don’t recall having noticed this before, but Vadim’s name in Cyrillic (which came up in FB discussions) is

Вадим Тёмкин

That family name, with the Cyrillic vowel letter ё (pronounced [jo]) rather than e (pronounced [je]) or э (pronounced [ɛ]), is usually transliterated into Latin letters in English with the vowel letters yo, jo, io, or just o: Tyomkin, Tjomkin, Tiomkin, Tomkin. But not Temkin, which looks like it has a confusion of Cyrillic ё and e.

Then the penny dropped, and I made the onomastic connection between Vadim — Jewish, originally from Minsk in Belarus — and the celebrated movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin — Jewish, originally from Kremenchuk in Ukraine (a different piece of the old Russian Empire). Тёмкин here, Тёмкин there. From Wikipedia:

Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin (Russian: Дмитрий Зиновьевич Тёмкин, Dmitrij Zinov’evič Tjomkin, Ukrainian: Дмитро́ Зино́війович Тьо́мкін, Dmytro Zynoviyovyč Tomkin) (May 10, 1894 – November 11, 1979) was a Ukrainian-born American film composer and conductor. Classically trained in St. Petersburg, Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, he moved to Berlin and then New York City after the Russian Revolution. In 1929, after the stock market crash, he moved to Hollywood, where he became best known for his scores for Western films, including Duel in the Sun, Red River, High Noon, The Big Sky, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Last Train from Gun Hill.

In any case, I now feel that I’ve been pronouncing Vadim’s family name sort of wrong all these years, as /tɛmkɪn/, when the straightforward anglicization would be /tamkɪn/. Well, it’s a spelling pronunciation, what you get if you spell it Temkin.

This gave me an opportunity to write an essay on letter ё and my name. Here it is.

Oh, what a fun. I’ve got to write something linguistic-adjacent on Arnold’s site to protect my name 😀

First, let’s start with Cyrillic ё. It is used in Russian and Belarussian, but not other Slavic languages written in Cyrillic. It represents the vowel shift of stressed е from /e/ to /o/ in some situations in 12-16th centuries, after the introduction of writing. It is probably a unique letter, which has a documented date of birth and author. Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, the director of St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences proposed it November 29, 1783. (Yep, Catherine the Great was not the only great Catherine of her time.) This letter was always a bastard of Russian alphabet: always had proponents and opponents with very strong opinions, and it is traditionally only used in books for children and foreigners, or in cases where there is need for disambiguation. My friend, who was long time ago my Ph.D. thesis advisor, Mark Nemenman, was a great proponent of including it in computer encoding standards. For his birthday, few friends and I gave him the UNICODE character adoption for Ё.

Now, let’s move to my surname. It is true, any Russian speaker, would figure pronounce my name Темкин as if it was spelled Тёмкин /Tiomkin/ whether it is spelled with е or ё. I suspected it is because of the surname Potemkin (of Potemkin village fame, one of the very few Russianisms from before 20th century). In Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin is Потёмкин and everyone knows that. This is the reason why the great film composer Dimitry Tiomkin spelled his surname this way. When my cousin from independent Belarus visited me many years ago, in the letter to the American Embassy to Belarus I had to explain that Tsiomkin was my immediate relative: his name was transliterated from Belarussian Цёмкин, because in Belarussian soft /t/ sounds more like /ts/, spells ц and transliterates correspondingly. All is good, however…

Really, historically, my name should be pronounced /tɛmkɪn/, the way English speakers pronounce it. And here goes another bit of history. The Jewish surnames were decreed in Russian Empire in 1804 (and then again in 1835, because the first decree didn’t hold). Some of the surnames were based on toponyms (usually based on the place where the family was originally, but not at the time of the recording: it wouldn’t make sense to call Minsky the guy residing in Minsk). My great-grandpa was Uniegovsky supposedly because there was a miniscule village called Uniegovka (I found only one reference to the village in the early 1800s). Others were based on profession: Portnoy, Kravets, Khait, and Shnaider – were all tailors – in Russian, Ukrainian/Belarussian, Hebrew, and Yiddish correspondingly. There were some more patterns of forming the surnames, but one of the most prolific was creating it from matronymics. In the land where many of the Slavic neighbors had patronymics as surnames, the Jews used matronymics. Another of my great-grandfathers was Margolin. This is older, medieval Ashkenazi surname, from Margalit, which was form of Margaret, but modified to sound like Hebrew for pearl. In 19th century they would be Perlin, because Pearl became popular female name. Menuhin is son of Menuha, Zeldin – son of Zelda, Raikin – son of Raika (Raissa). Son of Tamar would be Tamarkin, or if they used diminutive form – Tema (pronounced with hard /t/) – he would be Temkin /tɛmkɪn/. So here is mine historic surname. In Russian-speaking environment it changed. Dimitry Tiomkin was raised in family of doctor and musician, and studied in St. Petersburg Conservatory – that’s why he went by Tiomkin. If he emigrated directly from Yiddish-speaking shtetl, he would be probably Temkin.

This is why while I would go great lengths to explain how to pronounce Vadim, I happily adopted the default pronunciation of Temkin in English.

3 Responses to “On Vadim Temkin’s surname”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Any relation to the late great Owsei Temkin, born in Belarus, 1902-2002, historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    A note: Vadim’s “preeminent” is notably hyperbolic: “eminent”, just possibly; “preeminent”, no way. Though it’s sweet of Vadim to have said that.

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