ultoday.com interviews Dr. Clai Rice, a linguist and the Coordinator of Graduate Studies in the Department of English. In the first half of his interview, he talks about linguistics, and how English and French are different from languages such as Haitian Creole, and even Klingon.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Athens, Georgia. My dad was on the faculty at UGA. After I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Chicago. While I was there, I saw a lot of blues, the Checkerboard Lounge and all that.

What did you study?

Linguistics.

Explain that.

Linguistics is the study of language... and so it's a lot of things. Language is important for just about everything, so linguists think we're the center of the university. In general, we try to study the structure and function of language. So we look at natural human language.

Natural language?

Yes, as opposed to human non-natural languages; say, Klingon. They're called created languages. And then you have other created languages, such as computer languages, languages between humans and other things. De Saussure said that human language is a subset of a larger field called semiotics, the study of all systems of meaning.

After I graduated, I taught in Haiti for a year. That was 1986, Baby Doc [dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier] was kicked out while I was there. The US State Department had all the Americans leave, so I wasn't in the country when it happened, but I came back after Christmas. I was also there during the Challenger disaster.

You've never seen a country in such transformation. Under the dictator, business only went on at night. Everything had to be done in secret. You couldn't get building permits, the government controlled all business. If you wanted to get a phone, or anything, you had to pay a bribe. We all had spies.. mine was a real friendly guy, so whenever I went somewhere, I'd pick him up and give him a ride.

I was working with a vocational school down there, run by the Episcopal Church. I was in Cape Haitien, the second largest city, in the north part of the country. There wasn't too much unrest, some tire burnings & stuff, but no weapons. Only the Tonton Macoute had weapons. So we didn't have much to fear.

Did you learn French?

No, I learned some Haitien French.

What's the difference?

A creole is a language of people who speak other native languages, but have no pre-existing common language. The Haitians incorporate some French words, but use the grammar from their African languages. So they speak Creole French... people who speak French think it's bastardized French, but it's a complete language in itself.

After that I went back to UGA as an instructor in English, and I taught for a year in the international English program, classes for non-native speakers.

I also coached soccer. I coached for the YMCA, then I taught English & coached at Clarke Central High there in Athens.

I hadn't formally studied much literature, but I was teaching it in the high school. So after four years, I went back for a PhD in English. When I went back, I found that that linguistic analysis was one approach to literature, so that's what I studied, and that's I do now.

What are some of the projects you have going on?

A paper I'm working on right now is one in which I argue that experimental poetry has something to teach linguists about the way language works.

That's not already accepted?

In fact the opposite, it is unaccepted. One reviewer liked the paper, the other thought it was a joke.

If you look back through history at any discussions on the way language works, scholars only studied high literary language. Take Aristotle: he was quoting plays and writings that everyone knew.

It was only in the early 20th century that people began taking an interest in non-literary approaches to languages. Once scholars start looking at the language that people actually use, then literary language becomes seen as fake, stilted, contrived.

Then when Noam Chomsky focused on the importance of the sentence in language, then any language which was made of something other than sentences was considered fragmented, incomplete. So in the context of Chomskyan linguistics, the parts of poetry which are the most interesting, are the most ungrammatical parts.

Currently in linguistics, there's a lot more interest in what we call discourse studies... when you record people's actual conversations, you find we don't talk in complete sentences. Ungrammaticisms are much more common than previously thought. So it turns out that the concept that linguistics is based on grammatical sentences, if not wrong-headed, is woefully inadequate.

It's the way we actually speak that is of interest to the linguist. Everyone uses gestures; we find there is a close relation between the shape and sizes of the gestures, and what is being said.

No news to the person on the street. But when all you've been studying for the past 40 years is complete sentences, then a lot of this work is revealing, exciting even.

In the second half of the interview, Dr. Rice talks about why English graduate students are so successful at getting jobs, and why English is so important to education, particularly at UL.