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Rachel Szekely: LIU Post’s Only Professor of Linguistics

By Anand Venigalla
Assistant Features Editor

Rachel Szekely, the director of curriculum for non-native speakers (which plans the curriculum for international students in the first-year writing program) and associate professor of English, is currently the only professor at Post whose specialty is linguistics.

Photo by Anand Venigalla Professor Rachel Szekely, director of curriculum for non-native speakers

Szekely received a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and her undergraduate degree from Smith College. Her area of specialization is pragmatics and its interfaces with syntax, semantics and philosophy of language. She began teaching at LIU in the fall 2008 and is now teaching ENG2, (Writing II: Research and Argumentation), ENG3, (Grammar and Structure of English) and ENG787 (Introduction to Linguistics).

Her current project involves the subject of negation. “For the past few years I have been working on negation, specifically negative indefinites like ‘no man.’ I am trying to explain why it is that negative indefinites can be interpreted with contrary meaning (rather than contradictory meaning) in predicate position. For example, you can use the sentence ‘John is no fool’ to mean more than just that he is not a fool–to say that John is clever. I initially approached this problem semantically, trying to explain it by virtue of the meanings of the words and the way they are composed, but have recently begun to explore a pragmatic approach to this phenomenon. That means I’m looking at the way we use sentences that acquire these meanings and trying to explain these facts on that basis,” Szekely said.

Linguistics appeals to Szekely because of its no-nonsense approach. “Linguists pull no punches. I enjoy that frankness and the fact that there are real facts at issue,” Szekely said.

Linguistics also appeals to her because of the variety it offers interested learners. “From a curricular point of view, linguistics is also special, because it touches on so many other disciplines—languages, literature, sociology, philosophy, psychology, computer science and speech pathology, to name a few,” Szekely said.

Szekely loves languages. She is fluent in speaking and reading French, German and Italian. The history of language drew her to linguistics. “I always loved languages, but had only studied language in the context of literature—linguistics was a way to study language more analytically. There were facts to be discovered. This was exciting to me,” Szekely said.

Being the only linguistics professor on campus can be lonely for Szekely. “Most people have no idea what my field is. They think I can fix non-native speakers’ English or that I study writing. Neither of these is my [area] of expertise,” Szekely said.

For those who want to learn languages, Szekely has a simple piece of advice. “Go to the country where it is spoken, and live there. That’s the best thing you can do,” she said.

Szekely also gave some advice for translations. “No text is the same in translation, but translations can be works of art independently of that. There are translations that are interesting in their own right. But if you really want to know what someone has written, read it in the original. Or trust your translator.

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