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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Ham and Eard: Ideas of Home
Toh Hsien Min goes digging for roots

By Toh Hsien Min

I’m sitting in a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Denver, listening to Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House, mainly because there’s nothing else to do. It may sound strange, but it’s exactly while I’m squashed up in an economy seat, somewhere in the sky above Nevada, that I think of the crowded house in an archipelago ten time-zones away, and wonder what if anything makes that house a home. To give even more context, this comes after a day in San Francisco that has ranged from the surreal to the semi-comedic. At the airport, we got into a cab whose suspensions gave us the illusion of being in a speedboat out in the bay, but as we slowed into the city, passing PacBell Park and the piers on Embarcadero, the whole surrounding area was so quiet you could hear the individual clatter of a skateboard, sharp as a shard of glass. It didn’t seem quite like the super-charged centre of wheel-and-deal that numerous issues of Red Herring had brought me to expect. And then San Francisco threw another curveball. By late afternoon, it had begun to rain, lightly at first. By the time we got off the tram at Powell and I commenced an ill-advised trek to find Farallon and Aqua, it was pouring, we were getting wet in our too-summery clothes, and the wind was coming in off the ocean. “It’s worse than London,” I said, to none of my companions in particular.

In a recent Business Times survey, a number of young, urban professional Singaporeans were asked what made them stay in Singapore. They were given options ranging from the food to the weather to the opportunities, but a startling 44% of respondents picked the option, nothing, they couldn’t wait to catch the first flight out. Another recent survey undertaken by the Economic Review Committee feedback group also found that of 153 overseas students, one in three said they would not return to Singapore upon graduation.. These two surveys touched on what must seem for Singapore like a recurring dream, that for all the government’s efforts in chiselling out a national identity, many young Singaporeans do not feel a sense of belonging anymore.

There could be any number of reasons for this. The latter survey suggests that the increasingly cosmopolitan and international perspectives that our younger generations now have access to pushes them to think beyond the bounds of Singapore. (For example, it’s during my travels that I ponder such issues of home and belonging.) There may be deeper sociological factors at work. Singapore’s population has been historically drawn from the migrant peoples of China, India and the Malay Archipelago; they are fitted with mobile, can-do spirit, willing to go anywhere in pursuit of their dreams, in the past, now and in the future. When our government makes such mobility not only visible but obvious, in policies that encourage foreign talent, for example, it cannot help but awaken the migratory instincts of 44% of BT respondents.

However, aside from the foregrounding of this 747 aspect of modern life, I would contend that the more fundamental reason is not what the hand touches, but the very visibility of the hand. The word ‘home’ for many people is constituted more in the personal and familial than in the tribal and national, and when a government clearly engages, through posters and television advertisements, in the issue of home and belonging, it complicates the concepts for many.

Curiously enough, we can find a trace of this bias from the earliest roots of the English language. The word ‘home’ can be tracked back to the Old English ‘ham’, with the long vowel, which originally meant the place of one’s permanent dwelling, where one could centre one’s family life. For a while in Old and Middle English it also held the secondary meaning of a collection of dwellings, nothing larger than a village, from which we get the modern day ‘hamlet’. But in Old English, larger concepts of home occupied other words.

One such word was ‘eard’, which meant homeland, domain, dwelling region or similar: something larger than a ‘home’. Now I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in Old English, but the most prominent occurrence of ‘eard’ that I know of is in the Brunanburh, a poem celebrating a battle fought by Aethelstan, the grandson of Alfred, and recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937. The end of the poem celebrates the dominance of the West-Saxons, asserting their power and rule with a nationalism of impressive truculence, rather like the sort we see on the Padang in August.

                               Ne wearð wæl mare
on þis eiglande          æfre gieta
folces gefylled          beforan þissum
sweordes ecgum,          þæs þe us secgað bec,
ealde uðwitan,          siþþan eastan hider
Engle and Seaxe          up becoman,
ofer brad brimu          Brytene sohtan,
wlance wigsmiþas,          Wealas ofercoman,
eorlas arhwate          eard begeatan.

It’s been translated by Tennyson thus:

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge –
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories –
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of the glory gat
Hold of the land.

My eyebrows are raised because Tennyson enjoys a reputation as one of the most nationalistic – read English – poets, writing in an imperial age, when Singapore was coming to the fore as one of the British Empire’s most important outposts in the Far East. Enough has been made of his rewriting of the Arthurian legend, so that to note that this little verse similarly celebrates the origin of Englishness may be seen as to be trivial. Yet, I’m struck by his translation of ‘eard begeaton’ to the rustic and somewhat biblical ‘gat / Hold of the land’.

I would have put it more strongly: “Never was there a greater slaughter of people felled by the edges of swords on this island, of which books, those old and wise ones, tell us, since from the east, Angles and Saxons came here, over the broad sea, seeking Britain; these proud warriors defeated the Welsh, earls brave of old founded a country.”

There may be any number of explanations for this. It is tempting to see Tennyson’s translation as the nationalistic poet accepting a more settled world order. By 1880, when this translation was published in Ballads and Other Poems, the British Empire was already a global political reality. After the transfer of the governmental functions of the East India Company in 1858, the by then de facto British Empire held sway, directly or indirectly, over vast tracts of land from Africa to India to Singapore and to Australia. At this point there was either less of a need for British-centric emphasis, or more of a need to justify the imperial impulse.

However, the truth could be more prosaic. Tennyson was not expert in Old English either – although as a Tab he had a prefabricated excuse – and he had to rely on his son’s prose translation of the Brunanburh in the Contemporary Review of 1876 to arrive at this poem. His son Hallam had translated the last sentence as such: “When haughty war-smiths overcame the Welshmen, and earls full of the lust of glory gat hold of the land.” It’s likely that between him and his son, there was no recognition of the word ‘eard’. As a word and as a concept, ‘eard’ had started to disappear during the transition between the Old and Middle English periods. For example, it appeared in the Ormulum, a Middle English poem of the late 12th Century, as ‘ærd’; the Ormulum, interestingly, has a strong sense of place, mostly by dint of its East Midland dialect, and that alone is telling. Rural dialects, as we know, had begun giving way to the capital culture by the time Chaucer came to joke about it.

So for a while I was barking up an odd collection of trees. My immediate hunch, that ‘eard’ could have become ‘earth’ was off the mark, as ‘earth’ apparently comes from ‘eorþe’ (similarly, ‘hearth’ from ‘heorþe’). Nor did it become what we now know as ‘yard’, which is derived from ‘geard’. The word ‘eard’ has no progeny in modern English that we know of. The closest cognate is not any of these, but the verb ‘erian’, meaning ‘to plow’, which also fell out of use; ‘erian’ also appears to be from the same Indo-European root as Latin ‘arare’, which became modern English ‘arable’.

It’s also interesting that the protagonists of Brunanburh are named Aethelstan and Edmund Aetheling:

Her æþelstan cyning,          eorla dryhten,
beorna beahgifa,          and his broþor eac,
Eadmund æþeling,

because the other word usually used in Old English for ‘homeland’ was ‘eþel’ (also sometimes rendered ‘eðel’), from which we get ‘æþelu’ (‘noble descent’) and ‘æþeling’ as above (‘prince’). In other words, the notion of rule, aristocracy, royalty and ultimately nation comes, at least initially in English, from the land.

This being the case, the separate histories of these three words for ‘home’ shows us something of the relative priorities of the English peoples. The only word that survives is the one that refers to the smallest social unit. The two words for ‘home’ in the larger regional and national spheres die out, and the only vestige of them consists in the soil, which is at least as vital to the individual and family unit as to the state. It’s also curious that sometime in the Middle English period, ‘ham’/‘home’ took on a secondary meaning of ‘home country’ – including the national concept in the personal – but that this has now passed out of use again. The replacement words that we use nowadays, ‘nation’ and ‘country’, come from the Romance languages, which may be directly attributed to the Norman invasion of 1066; the former is additionally noteworthy for being related to the same ‘nat-’ root as ‘natal’.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


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  Other Essays In This Issue

Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
By Gui Wei Hsin.

Uncertainty and Scepticism in Arthur Yap
By Cyril Wong.

Related Links

Business Times
External link.

Old English Pages
External link to Georgetown University.

Old English resources
External link to Voice of the Shuttle.

Tennyson's translation of the Brunanburh
External link to the University of Toronto.

Seamus Heaney's Nobel Lecture
External link to the Swedish Academy.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood reads Philip Larkin's 'Home is so Sad'
External link.

Carl Dennis's 'The God Who Loves You'
External link to Poetry Daily.

Mammon and the Discipline of Writing

Profile of Theodore Zeldin
External link to Findarticles.


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