Alternative Spellings of Names
Below are some comments on the spelling of the family name and the first name
The Family Name
Around 1900 there lived circa 100,000 Germans in Riga, a heritage from the Hanseatic League period.
The philosoher Herder (1744-1803) lived in Riga for a period, as did also Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Latvia was a part of Tsarist Russia until the Russian revolution in 1917. It has been estimated that 170,000
persons moved or fled from Latvia to abroad at the end of the war. One of them was Nimzowitsch.
It is not
known which language, or languages, the Nimzowitsch family used at home,
Latvian, Yiddish, or German. It is however reasonable to believe that the family could speak Yiddish,
as did most Jews at the time, but also that they had a good knowledge of German, as typical representatives
of middle and upper classes. However, it is a fact that the kind of German that Nimzowitsch wrote is a bit
tricky even for native speakers of the German language.
Obviously the Russian language must have had a strong position in Riga, and although we cannot
know to what
extent it influenced the Latvian language, our knowledge of how the Grandmaster’s name was actually
pronounced indicates that there was an influence from Russian pronunciation habits.
Blockade was published in 1925, simultaneously in a German edition and a
Russian one. Then came
Mein System (Berlin 1925-27) and Die Praxis meines Systems (1928), both of which were only written
in German. Nimzowitsch’s least known work is the relatively short essay How I became a Grandmaster, which
appeared in Russian in 1929. We must take it for granted that Nimzowitsch also knew Latvian, but there is
no indication of texts written in Latvian, and evidently he sometimes contributed to the Rigaer Tageblatt,
a newspaper printed in German.
we still cannot say which was Nimzowitsch’s mother tongue, but he had a good
command of German
and Russian, and evidently he was a receptive learner of languages, since he also learnt to speak Danish,
and the fact that Denmark won the Silver medals at the 1927 Chess Olympics is proof of Nimzowitsch’s pedagogic
skills, exercised at various seminars etc. (He came to be called “Denmark’s Chess Teacher”.) It is probable
that he also had a certain knowledge of Swedish; at least he has published articles in Swedish papers and
magazines, and he also lectured on positional play when touring in Scandinavia giving simultaneous shows.
Russian spelling reform of 1917
It is not quite clear how the surname was written in Russian around 1900, but the Russian version of the
1909 St. Petersburg tournament book states Н(*)MЦОВИЧ, where the asterisk stands for the letter ‘yat’,
which existed in the Russian alphabet till 1917 and was then replaced by ‘E’ (YE). It is not available in
modern office programs, but it can be seen from the internet if you enter "Old Cyrillic Alphabet" or
"Omniglot" in a search engine. The sound-value of ‘yat’ (sometimes given as ‘yati’) was /je/ (phonetic
symbols, representing the sound as in English ‘yet’, where /j/ is a semi-vowel) so up to 1917 the pronunciation
should have been /njemtsovitch/ (where /ch/ stands for the affricate palato-alveolar sound). In the light of
this fact it is all the more reasonable why the previous German version of the name, also used by Nimzowitsch
himself, was Niemzowitsch.
new letter, ‘E’ (YE), has the sound value /e/, so when ‘yat’ was
replaced by ‘ye’, the name should have
been written НEMЦОВИЧ, pronounced /nemtsovitch/, which was however not the case, as the new spelling
came to be НИMЦОВИЧ, at least later on. In fact, the new letter /e/ was not an accurate replacement for ‘yat’,
since they had two different sound-values, so no wonder that a certain confusion followed.
and private name versions
Before 1920 official documents, such as passports, were probably made out in Russian, being the language
of the authorities. Russian names were rendered in French and German versions, but not in English. According
to Dr. J. Hannak  in Mein System (2nd edition,1965), Nimzowitsch’s parents had used a “Slavic version” in official
documents, Nêmčovič. Unfortunately, Dr. Hannak is not very clear on this point. He does not explain where
he found this spelling version, and in fact it does not seem to reflect Latvian orthography, since the letter ê was
only used in Gothic print, where the circumflex accent indicated a long vowel sound. So Hannak’s expression
“Slavisierte Form” is rather enigmatic.
possible hypothesis (though not very likely) could be that Nimzowitsch’s parents
used the ê in handwritten signatures,
although that letter had been abolished in print long ago, and that Dr. Hannak somehow had come to see such a
signature. At least, it seems reasonable to assume that Hannak had seen the name in print or in writing, since he
says that the family had two ways of writing the name, Nêmčovič (Latvian /?/ spelling), and Niemzowitsch
(German spelling). Indeed, the spelling Niemzowitsch is the one used by Nimzowitsch in newspaper articles before 1920,
and also by Dr. Tarrasch in Die moderne Schachpartie, 4th edition, Leipzig 1924. We have no proof that Hannak
actually met Nimzowitsch’s parents, but we know that his mother was still alive in 1935 when the grandmaster died in
Latvian is described as a Balto-Slavic language, and its alphabet is based on the Latin one. It is however a
complication that a spelling reform was introduced in 1922, i.e. a couple of years after Nimzowitsch had left Riga, and
Hannak does not say whether he refers to the old or the new version. As could have been expected, the old
characters were in use together with the new ones long after the spelling reform, and still in the 1930’s. However,
there is no circumflex accent in the new version either.
present-day alphabet has a number of diacritical signs, and so did the old
one, but not exactly the same. In
the earlier alphabet, the Gothic print version, a circumflex accent was supposed to indicate that a vowel was long,
thus the ê in Nêmčovič should be long, /e:/. This is however a bit confusing, since, according to Hannak, the first
syllable was pronounced /ie/, that is to say it was diphthongised, or rather palatalised. In a Latvian word the stress
always falls on the first syllable. But according to Hannak the stress in Nêmčovič was on the penultimate, /-čo/.
from normal Latvian patterns –Russian
So, if we regard the word Nêmčovič as a Latvian name, there are two untypical features regarding the vowels, the
diphthongised ê, and the stressed o. It is possible that these features reflect a Russian influence. Where the stress
falls in Russian words is to a large extent unpredictable, but there is one reliable rule: family names ending in –ovich
or –evich always have the stress on the penultimate.
there is also some obscurity attached to the consonant č.
In Latvian, the c with an inverted circumflex
accent is and was pronounced with a palato-alveolar fricative, as in "batch". Consequently, the name should be
pronounced /niem'tcho:vitch/. But we know for sure that the first č was pronounced as /ts/, leading to the pronunciation
/niem'tso:vitch/. This was written Niemzowitsch in German, still pronounced with the stress on the penultimate
syllable –zo, i.e. the normal way for a Russian family name.
to the reason why the Passport
chose the spelling Nimzowitsch, Hannak more or less assumes
that it was a matter of intentional misrepresentation. However, that need not be the case. In present-day Russian
the surnameis spelled НИMЦОВИЧ, which may be the result of a back-translation.
We do not know for sure how the name was spelled and pronounced in Russian
before 1920, and it is quite possible
that the officer could not deduce the correct transcription into German when reading the Russian orthography. If that
officer had the Russian spelling Нимцович as his original, it is only natural that he wrote Nimzowitsch.  And if,
instead of the и, the original had the old letter ‘yat’, he could only guess if he should write Nim- or Nem- or Niem.
And as if the confusion was not great enough, the meaning of the word НИMЦОВИЧ, is "The son of a German",
with reference to the words Нeмой, meaning “mute”, and Нeмeџ, meaning “German, , with the connotation
"The son of a mute man", or “The son of a man who cannot speak Russian”. But the Russian-born grandmaster Tartakower,
who was almost the same age as Nimzowitsch, called him ”The Baltic Grandmaster”. Anyway, assuming that the roots
of the name are Нeмой and Нeмeџ it would have been more logical the spell the name as НEMЦОВИЧ, since, as has
been pointed out above, the letter ‘yat’ had already been replaced by ‘YE’.
Moreover, there is also a Czech name Nemec /njemets/, meaning "German".
version - Nimzowitsch
After having left Latvia in 1920 under tumultuous circumstances Nimzowitsch had to use the variation entered into his
passport by the Latvian authorities, Nimzowitsch, and from now on it should definitely be pronounced with the stress
on the first syllable, and a short vowel sound instead of the "ie". We can only guess whether this transfer of the stress
to the initial syllable also reflects a concession to normal Scandinavian pronunciation patterns. However, you may find
several instances of the version “Niem-“ in texts after 1920, and we also know that the old pronunciation survived for
many years as a variation of the new one.
There are two current spellings of the first name, Aron and Aaron. The latter one was used by J. Hannak in the 1958
one-volume edition of Mein System, where he has a lengthy biographical introduction under the headline of
Aaron Nimzowitsch - Lebenslauf eines Pessimisten.
version with only one 'A' is widely used in English translations of texts by
Nimzowitsch and in English texts
about him, such as Raymond Keene: Aron Nimzowitsch - A Reappraisal (1974). The version Aa is found in
The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (1978) by Arpad E. Elo, the father of the Elo System.
Dr. Elo, who was a Hungarian-American, uses the spelling version Nimzovitch for the family name, thus with a
kind of English phonetic spelling. (Jaques Hannak was Austrian.) On the other hand, we find the "Anglo-Saxon"
version with just one ‘A’ in Aron Nimcovič , by Dr. Slavko Petrović (Zagreb 1973).
friend Phil Hughes has found a document signed Aron
Niemzowitsch in handwriting. It was dated
7th October 1905, when Nimzowitsch, aged about 18, was admitted into the University of Zürich for studies in
mathematics. A strange fact in this "Immatrikulation" is that his date of birth is stated as 9 November, whereas
it has generally been believed to be the 7th.
articles in Sydsvenska Dagbladet in 1913 are just signed
with the initial, thus A.
Niemzowitsch, and this
seems to be his usual way of representing his first name afterwards in magazines etc., as in
A. Nimzowitsch: Mein System, 1. Lieferung, (Berlin 1925). In contemporary texts he is mostly referred to as
"Herr Nimzowitsch". Alexander Aljechin/Alekhine was inconsistent in his use of both the first name and the surname.
to other English-speaking persons bearing the same name, we find both those
with one A and such with Aa, for
instance Elvis Aaron Presley.
Russia the name Aron/Aaron is used very seldom, due to changes of fashion in
naming. To whatever
extent it occurs, the version with only one A would be normal, since it is very rare to find doubled letters in Russian,
with exceptions such as the famous name of Spassky. However, we find the version Aa in the Orthodox Bible, the
version approved by the Holy Synod (1721-1917), where the brother of Moses has his name spelled “Aaron”.
normal Yiddish spelling was with one ‘A’. Present-day Jewish writing
habits do not uphold any symbolic or
traditional differences between the two versions.
In German names we find both the ‘Aa’ and ‘A’ versions, but the name
is not frequent. The editor of the
one-volume version of Mein System, Verlag “Das Schach-Archiv”, only puts the initial, leaving us in uncertainty.
So did the original “Lieferungen” 1925-27, published by Verlag Bernhard Kagan, Berlin.
While the author assumes responsibility for any flaws in the above account of versions of names,
he would like to thank the following persons for their kind help and advice:
Andris Jakobsons, Vineta Freimane, Elmar Purin, Sthig Jonasson, Bernard Cafferty, Phil Hughes.
Jacques, b. Vienna, March 12, 1892, d. Vienna, Nov. 14, 1973,
socialist author, journalist ("Arbeit und Wirtschaft", after 1946
"Arbeiterzeitung"), in 1938/39
interned in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, 1939 emigrated to Belgium and France, 1941 to the USA where he was employed by the Office of War Information
(radio broadcasting department). In 1946 return to Vienna. (Encyclopaedia of Austria).
Hannak is above all known for his comprehensive biography
Lasker - Biographie eines Schachweltmeisters
(Berlin 1952), which also contains interesting information of other players of the time, among other things an account of the
tragic relationship between Lasker and Aljechin during the Nazi period, which led up to a series of articles in 1941 in
"Deutsche Schachzeitung", in which Aljechin described Lasker's game as a typical example of "Jewish decadence".
Linguists are not unanimous as to the classification of the Latvian
language. While there are similarities between Latvian
and Slavic languages, some scholars maintain than such similarities do not go back to the Indo-European period. The Czech
author Jarošlav Hasek in his famous book “The Brave Soldier Svejk” (1924) makes the following astonishing remark:
“Nothing has changed since the time when the pirate Vojtech, who was later given the epithet “The Holy”, with the sword
in one hand and the cross in the other, took part in the annihilation of Baltic slavs.”
Chess friend Bernard Cafferty points out that there was
a well-known Polish writer called Julian Niemcevicz (1758-1841), so the
name, or something very close to it,
did exist in another Slavonic language. In the Russian spelling of this Polish name, verified in a pre-1917 Russian encyclopaedia, the first vowel was rendered by the letter
'yat' which is number 30 of the 36-letter older Russian alphabet. That letter yat' was replaced in the 1917 spelling reform by letter number 6 of the current 33-letter Russian
alphabet. In Polish fixed stress is normal, so the name is pronounced with the stress on the middle syllable.