The authoritative work on Russia Jewish surnames is Alexander Beider's A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, 1993, available from Avotaynu, P.O. Box 1134, Teaneck, NJ 07666 (760 pp.). Our information is taken from that source.
Traditionally Russian Jews did not use last names. Last names were imposed by law in the Russian empire at the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). At this time, Jewish settlement in Russia was restricted to the so-called Pale of Settlement and the Kingdom of Poland, on the western frontier of the Russian Empire. The Pale extended from the Black Sea in the south up to modern Lithuania and Latvia in the north, including the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Bessarabia.
The choice of family name was left to the individual, and in practice nine systems were used, whose popularity varied significantly from region to region within the Pale. Beider classifies these as follows (p. 16):
The name Cherlin arose in the Pale of Settlement in the early nineteenth century as a matronymic, that is it was based on the mother's first name, which would be Sora or Tsira according to the Hebrew, or Sore according to the Yiddish. To this an ending meaning "little" or "son of" would be attached, generally from Yiddish: the most common forms were "kin" (German Kind), "son" (German Sohn), and "lin" (German -lein). In some cases a more Russian ending like "-onov" or "-ovich" might be used.
Alexander Beider collects all the variants of this name under Sorin, and lists 182 distinct variants, all in use somewhere in the Pale of Settlement. Here is a sample illustrating the range of variation in this formation: Sorin, Sorinov, Shores, Surenko, Sorkes, Sorlizon, Soskind, Soskel, Sonenzon, Serlin, Serkis, Tsirel'son, Tsirles, Cherli, Tsirklin, Shorkovich, Shoshes, Sherl, Sorochkin. Of course, these became distinct family names, and once they were selected the forms were relatively stable, though spelling and pronunciation were not fixed, and varied with the alphabet in use.
The specific form Cherlin is a variant of Tsirlin, and belongs to the following series: Tsirlin, Tsyrlin, Tserlin, Cherlin, Sirlin.
The form "Tsirlin" is listed in an 1811 census of Bobruisk (the uyezd?) according to a Jewishgen page based on LDS films, which has moved. However this page has a more recent dataset.
Sara Cherlin received the following similar information from Chaim Freedman of Petah Tikhvah, Israel in 1997:
According to my late colleague Rabbi Shmuel Gorr, coauthor of "Jewish Personal names ..." the surname Cherlin (and Tsirlin) was derived from the female personal name Tsira, meaning a jewel. Rabbi Gorr researched several Cherlin families, seemingly unconnected, who came from various Eastern European towns.
Rabbi Gorr made an extensive study of Jewish first names, and published a book on that topic.
This can arise in two ways: from a nickname based on personal characteristics, or as a toponym based on a place name.
Toponym: The form is Chervin, coming from the village Czerwin (a Polish spelling with the same pronunciation). This village is located in the Ostrów district of the Lomza guberniya (this should be a Polish "L" and a dotted "z" but I'm not sure how to produce those letters here). This town lies just to the west of the Pale of Settlement, in what was then the Kingdom of Poland.
Nickname: The main form is Chervonyj, and the region is Gajsin and Balta. The meaning is "red" (hair or complexion?). The variants are: Chervin, Chervinchik, Chervonchik, Chervonnyj, Chervonyak, Chervonen'kij, Chervonenkis.
Note. We have discovered (confirmed in 2003) that the "Vilna" line of Cherlin's is in fact a line of Chervin's. As this site began as a "Cherlin+variants" website exclusively, it is unlikely we will be able to bring it up to date on the much more numerous and complex Chervin/Cherwin line; but we will put up what we can. And we would certainly like to trace any related lines!
The source for this is Beider, pages 71-81.
In the Pale of Settlement the official language was Russian, and all the Jewish inhabitants spoke Yiddish. In Courland and Livonia, technically not in the Pale, the official language was German. In various parts of the Pale the non-Jewish inhabitants spoke Polish, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Turkish. Most of these languages influenced some Jewish names; but Lithuanian and Latvian had little impact. Yiddish tended to follow Polish as far as Lithuanian place names were concerned.
The two principal dialects of Yiddish in use were Southeastern (Ukrainian Yiddish) and Northeastern (Lithuanian Yiddish). Vowel pronunciation varied significantly. The use of consonants is typically uniform in all Yiddish dialects, with certain exceptions:
Northeastern Yiddish substitutes "s" for "sh". Northeastern Yiddish puts "ts" for "ch" and "zh" for "z" in Yiddish words derived from Slavic roots. Initial "h", which would become "g" in a Slavic pronunciation, may be dropped in Southeastern Yiddish.
The letter "l" also shows variation. In the south the letter was palatalized (adding a faint "y" sound to the English-speaking ear). An example is "Lyandsberg" for "Landsberg".
Elsewhere the "l" could be written as palatalized when written in Cyrillic according to the following rules: before consonants, and in final position, as well as before "u". This is a spelling rule whose relationship to pronunciation is irregular.
Distortions. There are many letter distortions that may occur doing to various interactions within and between languages. In some cases "r" and "l" alternate (Glinberg, Grinberg); "m" and "b" can interchange; and there are several other phonetic distortions of this type.
The following two distortions may be of particular interest here.
This is a complex subject (Beider, pp. 76-79).
Russification. Substitution of "in"for the adjectival endings annyj, nyj, ennyj. There are a number of other substitutions involving a final "in", all aimed at producing a more "Slavic" seeming name (Beider, pp. 79-80).
Yiddish was written with the Hebrew alphabet, but the sounds involved were closer to German. Russian was written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and German and Polish used the Latin alphabet, but according to two different systems for representing sounds, each of which differs from the system used in English. Information on the Yiddish alphabet can be found at JewishGen
Jews in the Pale of Settlement would fill out government documents in Cyrillic, and write private documents in Yiddish. As the sounds in the two languages are significantly different, not only would the spelling vary, but the pronunciation as well.
Here are some samples from the Cherlin family lines.
Iosel' Borukhov` Tsyrlin` (1910)
Jack Cherlin (Yekv Tshervin)(1920)
Isadore Cherlin (1904)
Samuel Cherlin (1936)
The first shows the standard Cyrillic spelling of "Cherlin", which would be more accurately transcribed as "Tsyrlin". That particular branch uses "Cherlyn" today. (This is not a signature - it is the handwritten version by a Russian official.)
The second shows the Yiddish spelling for the Vilna line, which is Tshervin or Tshervon (the former would be the expected form, and the writing is not clear).
The third shows the sort of "random" spelling we run into. It's a bit surprising to encounter this on a legal document.
Rabbi Gorr's book on personal names
For more details, see the family trees, the History of the Pale of Settlement, and the Maps.
Cherlin and Chervin
Family Home Page