In appreciation of English

Third article in our International English Language Day Series

, by Amir Heric

In appreciation of English
Windows depicting Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton in the west wall of the Great Hall of Hill Bark, Frankby. Design of the left two by Edward Burne-Jones, all made by William Morris Company. By Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

As JEF’s Europe’s only English language magazine, The New Federalist (TNF) honors the English Language this week on the occasion of International English Language Day which falls on April 23rd of each year. This is a first person article.

Whether under duress or another’s genuine curiosity, if I were to declare one aspect whose consistency in my life I was certain of, I must profess I would know the answer sooner than a moment’s passing. Admittedly, this is a thing of rarity, as most people change with time’s steady passage. Age is cruel in that it lords over our bodies and minds, but it is kind for molding us into what we eventually become. I have watched age stretch my body, scatter hair across my face, deepen my voice, and shift my beliefs, but one thing has remained with me since my earliest years up until the moment of writing this. This, of course, is my interest in and appreciation of the English language. My debt to it goes back to before I was born when my parents first met at an American military base in Bosnia. Step by step, one year after another, our debt grew. Before long, I owed most of what I know and what I’ve done to English.

In line with this, I spent the majority of my youth engrossed in the boons and fruits of this strange language. The whole journey was like an avalanche. At first, the onset of virgin snow piled and I nabbed a few words for myself. Then the snow mounded and became a snowball rolling down the side of the mountain as I chewed up the flesh and sinew of English grammar. Finally, the whole mountainside came rushing to its base when I began to emulate the accents and pronunciations of the actors, speakers, and characters on my screen. Having these tools at my disposal, I could leverage Prometheus’ modern gift to man — the Internet. It was Pandora’s Box, but I had the key. I had all of man’s collective acumen prepared for me and all that was required was for me to know how to interpret it. I still remember the excitement and whimsy of first stumbling onto this cyberplane. So much to see, so much to do, so much to learn, but so little time. But it also felt like forbidden knowledge, as most of my peers could see the characters and words, but they could not decipher them. I had grabbed the reins and held the power of interpreting something they were blind to. My hunger grew with time. Words turned into paragraphs, paragraphs into posts, and posts into books. I had grown up with Bosnian literature, but now I stood at the feet of the great writers of my species who wrote in English. In a few years’ time, I was enamored and tasting the fruit of the works of Joyce, Austen, Byron, Faulkner, Plath, Hughes, and a hundred more that stood in their ranks, a legion of literary giants. I can’t say I was the only one who could draw from their well, but I was among the few who drank straight from the source. While my peers consumed translations and rewrites of the originals, I saw the words and phrases as they were penned and I could read the descriptions as the authors intended. In doing this, I was a loose arrow, lying true, cutting through the fog. I found myself standing before them again, an insignificant speck in the unbroken chain of literary prowess and I wept knowing I shared in their experiences and I saw parts of the world through their eyes. Even now, years later, I stand before them as a kindred author, but they tower over me and all my work, standing on each other’s shoulders, beckoning the brave to try and conquer them. So few try as the fall is steep and the drop is endless. Looking up, they scrape the sky, growing into the heavens. I wonder if I will gather the courage needed one day. For now, I am content with their crumbs. I need not bask in the sun’s warm light while I rest in their shadow. Their breathtaking lineage lives on through me in a way; I often invoke their words, dabble in their descriptors, and paint images with brushes still wet from their strokes. As an author, I must pay homage to the countless before me. My labor is their labor. The tradition I belong to belongs to no one and all of us at the same time. This is the awe-inspiring beauty of literature, the eclecticism of its dialectic. My writing belongs to neither Eastern Europe nor the Anglo-American sphere. It is my own but drawn from a myriad of different sources.

I’ve spoken already about how English mimics the key to a priceless treasure of wisdom relayed to us by the wisest of our society. There is another way it has helped me. While a golden key, English is also a cohesive element like glue. It is a bridge between nations and cultures. Take my grandmother for example. The world you and I know is vastly different from hers. She knew the world as an idea, a thought. When you imagine the Milky Way, you don’t imagine the entire scope of it. When thinking of the breadth of our universe, no single image comes to mind. It is an unfathomably distant space harboring the wildest secrets of our reality, far beyond our reach at the moment. To her, this was Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Beijing, and Moscow. She never understood trains. To her, they traveled through wormholes and crossed immeasurable swathes of the globe. Her world, what she saw as the world, encompassed everything that fell within the boundary of family, house, neighborhood, and the faint idea of the capital city, the place where important decisions were made by mortal men of hollow morals. Europe, the idea of it, was as concrete as the Greek myth of Europe and the White Bull. My experience was incomparably different. I got to grow up during the height of the digital age. I saw firsthand how new technology narrowed our world and brought us closer to each other. English was but a needle and red thread that stitched and sewed the world together. This was how I was able to turn strangers into friends from leagues away. Cultures and continents apart, we could speak the same language, and that let us into each other’s lives. Divisions and divides are crossed thanks to understanding and the vehicle of that understanding was English. Whether it is in writing or through the spoken word, the ability to convey your thoughts in an organized and eloquent fashion ensures the strengthening of ties and the fostering of friendship among different types of people. How fortunate are we to live at a time when we may speak to our fellow man across the globe and share in his life, laugh at his jokes, and commiserate with his suffering?

When I decided to study English, I came to Groningen in the Netherlands to continue my academic journey. Yes, what I mentioned previously about English applies to my story as well. It gave me access to innumerable avenues of support and it helped me forge lasting friendships, but one particular incident has remained with me since October. Finding myself bored and in need of mental stimulation, I joined a writing group in the city and went to their first meeting. I appreciated being in the company of authors. Artistic expression has a way of revivifying the soul. Sadly, it was something unavailable to me for most of my life due to a lack of like-minded authors and the means to facilitate such meetings. What struck me was when I told them I was writing in English. They thought I was joking, but then I showed them my prose and my poetry. The language I wrote in was strange to the legacy of my nation. They expected to see the influences of Andrić and Selimović, but instead, they saw the vague outlines of Frost and echoes of Huxley crammed into my words, hidden behind my texts. I had no defense. I stood as a defendant at my trial, accused of abandoning the literary traditions of my people in favor of the English and the Americans. They would claim I couldn’t command English as well as my native language. It’s true, for most, their native language will always triumph. You can act out Sisyphus’ curse however long you desire, but the boulder will roll back down with time. However, I was born at a time of linguistic immersion, a period of aggressive cultural expansion. While we spoke Bosnian at home and school, the media I consumed, the games I played, the friends I made, everything was drenched in English. Therefore, we are no longer dealing with rote training and blind learning anymore. What I experienced were the fledgling stages of the enlargement of the English cultural sphere. What we see now is its height and I welcome it with open arms.

But they would decry my betrayal and give examples of the inadequacies of English in describing certain feelings and events. True, English lacks some key Bosnian words that are difficult to translate. We know “sevdah.” Only we’ve felt “merak.” We do things we have a “ćeif” for. To translate these, you’d need a sentence or two. They are right, Bosnian is a soulful language that draws many of its descriptors from its turbulent and fragmented history. When we cry, we cry cold, painful tears. When we laugh, we laugh until our breaths fail us. When we love, we love fully, caring for every atom of your being. But the argument is flawed. It can apply to every language. They like to defame English as being boring and simple, but I challenge you to look me in the eye and call Shakespeare simple. I can’t see the boredom behind Angelou’s words. Tell me the Bosnian word for “petrichor.” How have we never smelled the rain and yearned to pen a word for it? Perhaps we have a word for “sonder.” Maybe Bosnians seem to think about themselves more than others. How have we never seen something “evanescent?” Is our history so wrought with grief that we never needed to describe “ebullience” in a single word? Is English a boring language when it lets Milton capture Adam’s love for Eve:

“How can I live without thee, how forego Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly joined, To live again in these wild woods forlorn? Should God create another Eve, and I Another rib afford, yet loss of thee Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh, Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

However, I with thee have fixed my lot, Certain to undergo like doom; if death Consort with thee, death is to me as life; So forcible within my heart I feel The bond of nature draw me to my own, My own in thee, for what thou art is mine; Our state cannot be severed, we are one, One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.”

Or do you claim English not to be profound when it has issued many warnings from Orwel to Bradbury? Look upon the words of McCarthy and see that literature is merely a repetition of truth, the medium through which philosophy becomes real:

“It makes no difference what men think of war…War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner.”

I couldn’t defend English better than it defends itself. Its case is indestructible. I have learned to appreciate it for both its features and its flaws. I could not name a language I’d rather speak. When I write, it is proudly in English, as thanks to the language that opened my mind to so much knowledge and bridged countless divides. With each day, more and more join our ranks. With every new addition, a new word is made, and a new item uniquely described. I hope to never learn all of it, so that I may spend all my days devoted to its study.

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