Thomas Sebeok

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Thomas Sebeok
SebeokinTartu (cropped).jpg
Sebeok giving a lecture in Tartu
Sebők Tamás

(1920-11-09)November 9, 1920
DiedDecember 21, 2001(2001-12-21) (aged 81)
Academic background

Thomas Albert Sebeok (Hungarian : Sebők Tamás, pronounced  [ˈʃɛbøːk ˈtɒmaːʃ] ; November 9, 1920 December 21, 2001) was a Hungarian-born American polymath, [1] semiotician, and linguist. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] As one of the founders of the biosemiotics field, he studied non-human and cross-species signaling and communication. [7] He is also known for his work in the development of long-time nuclear waste warning messages, in which he worked with the Human Interference Task Force (established 1981) to create methods for keeping the inhabitants of Earth away from buried nuclear waste that will still be hazardous 10,000 or more years in the future. [8]


Early life and education

Thomas Sebeok was born on November 9, 1920, in Budapest, Hungary. He attended secondary school at the famous Fasori Gimnázium, which educated notables such as John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner. After a brief stint at Cambridge University (Magdalene College) in England, he moved to the United States at the age of 17 and became a naturalized citizen in 1944. [9] Sebeok earned a bachelor's degree in 1941 at the University of Chicago. He earned a master's degree in anthropological linguistics, under the external guidance of Roman Jakobson, at Princeton University in 1943 and, in 1945, a doctorate at Princeton University; his dissertation was titled Finnish and Hungarian case systems: their form and function. [10]

Academic work

In 1943, Sebeok started work at Indiana University in Bloomington, assisting the Amerindianist Carl Voegelin in managing the country's largest Army Specialized Training Program in foreign languages. He then created the university's department of Uralic and Altaic Studies, covering the languages of Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia. He was also the chair of the university's Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies.

As a professor at Indiana University, Sebeok studied both human and non-human systems of signaling and communication, as well as the philosophy of mind. [11] He was among the founders of biosemiotics, and coined the term "zoosemiotics" in 1963 to describe the development of signals and signs by non-human animal species. [12] He also continued his work as a linguist, publishing several articles and books analyzing aspects of the Mari language (referring to it by the name "Cheremis"). His transdisciplinary work and professional collaborations spanned the fields of anthropology, biology, folklore studies, linguistics, psychology, and semiotics. [11]

Sebeok was the editor-in-chief of the journal Semiotica , the leading periodical in the field, from its establishing in 1969 until 2001. [13] He was also the editor of several book series and encyclopedias, including Approaches to Semiotics (over 100 volumes), Current Trends in Linguistics, and the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. [11]

In the early 1980s, Sebeok composed a report for the US Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia, [14] discussing solutions to the problem of nuclear semiotics, a system of signs aimed at warning future civilizations from entering geographic areas contaminated by nuclear waste. [15] The report proposed a "folkloric relay system" and the establishment of an "atomic priesthood" of physicists, anthropologists, and semioticians to create and preserve a common cultural narrative of the hazardous nature of nuclear waste sites. [16]

In addition to his academic work, Sebeok organized hundreds of international conferences and institutes, held leadership roles in organizations such as the Linguistic Society of America, International Association for Semiotic Studies, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Semiotic Society of America, and supported the creation of linguistic and semiotics teaching programs and scholarly associations throughout the world. [1]

Sebeok's personal library on semiotics, comprising more than 4,000 volumes of books and 700 journals, is preserved at the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu in Estonia. [17] His correspondence and research files are held by the Indiana University Archives. [10]

Personal life

Sebeok married Mary Eleanor Lawton (1912–2005) in 1947. They had one child, Veronica C. Wald, and later divorced. Sebeok married Donna Jean Umiker (born 1946, now D. Jean Umiker-Sebeok), a fellow semiotic scholar and his frequent collaborator and co-author, in 1973, and they had two children, Jessica A. Sebeok and Erica L. Sebeok. Sebeok retired from Indiana University in 1991, but he contributed to the field of semiotics until his death in 2001. [10]

Sebeok Fellow Award

The Sebeok Fellow Award "recognizes outstanding contributions to the development of the doctrine of signs" and is the highest honor given by the Semiotic Society of America. It is awarded every 2 to 4 years. Recipients have included David Savan (1992), John Deely (1993), Paul Bouissac (1996), Jesper Hoffmeyer (2000), Kalevi Kull (2003), Floyd Merrell (2005), Susan Petrilli (2008), Irmengard Rauch (2011), Paul Cobley (2014), Vincent Colapietro (2018), Nathan Houser (2019), Marcel Danesi (2020). [11] [18]

Selected English publications

Related Research Articles

Semiotics is the systematic study of sign processes (semiosis) and meaning making. Semiosis is any activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates something, usually called a meaning, to the sign's interpreter. The meaning can be intentional, such as a word uttered with a specific meaning; or unintentional, such as a symptom being a sign of a particular medical condition. Signs can also communicate feelings and may communicate internally or through any of the senses: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory (taste). Contemporary semiotics is a branch of science that studies meaning-making and various types of knowledge.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Juri Lotman</span> Estonian-Russian semiotician, literary scholar

Juri Lotman was a prominent Russian-Estonian literary scholar, semiotician, and historian of Russian culture, who worked at the University of Tartu. He was elected a member of the British Academy (1977), Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (1987), Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1989) and Estonian Academy of Sciences (1990). He was a founder of the Tartu–Moscow Semiotic School. The number of his printed works exceeds 800 titles. His archive which includes his correspondence with a number of Russian and Western intellectuals, is immense.

Biosemiotics is a field of semiotics and biology that studies the prelinguistic meaning-making, biological interpretation processes, production of signs and codes and communication processes in the biological realm.

Zoosemiotics is the semiotic study of the use of signs among animals, more precisely the study of semiosis among animals, i.e. the study of how something comes to function as a sign to some animal. It is the study of animal forms of knowing.

<i>Umwelt</i> Biological foundations central to the study of communication and signification

In the semiotic theories of Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok, umwelt is the "biological foundations that lie at the very center of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal". The term is usually translated as "self-centered world". Uexküll theorised that organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment. The term umwelt, together with companion terms Umgebung and Innenwelt, have special relevance for cognitive philosophers, roboticists and cyberneticians because they offer a potential solution to the conundrum of the infinite regress of the Cartesian Theater.

The semiosphere is an idea in biosemiotic theory proposing that, contrary to ideas of nature determining sense and experience, the phenomenal world is a creative and logical structure of processes of semiosis where signs operate together to produce sense and experience.

Marcel Danesi is Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is known for his work in language, communications and semiotics and is Director of the program in semiotics and communication theory. He has also held positions at Rutgers University (1972), University of Rome "La Sapienza" (1988), the Catholic University of Milan (1990) and the University of Lugano.

Monastic sign languages have been used in Europe from at least the 10th century by Christian monks, and some, such as Cistercian and Trappist sign, are still in use today—not only in Europe, but also in Japan, China and the USA. Unlike deaf sign languages, they are better understood as forms of symbolic gestural communication rather than languages, and some writers have preferred to describe them as sign lexicons.

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Phytosemiotics is a branch of biosemiotics that studies the sign processes in plants, or more broadly, the vegetative semiosis. Vegetative semiosis is a type of sign processes that occurs at cellular and tissue level, including cellular recognition, plant perception, plant signal transduction, intercellular communication, immunological processes, etc.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jesper Hoffmeyer</span> Danish biologist

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Augusto Ponzio</span> Italian semiologist and philosopher (born 1942)

Augusto Ponzio is an Italian semiologist and philosopher.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Susan Petrilli</span> Italian academic (born 1954)

Susan Petrilli is an Italian semiotician, professor of philosophy and theory of languages at the University of Bari, Aldo Moro, Italy, and the seventh Thomas A. Sebeok Fellow of the Semiotic Society of America. She is also International Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, the University of Adelaide, South Australia.


  1. 1 2 Cobley, Paul; Deely, John; Kull, Kalevi; Petrilli, Susan (eds.) (2011). Semiotics Continues to Astonish: Thomas A. Sebeok and the Doctrine of Signs . (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 7.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  2. Hoffmeyer, Jesper (2002). Obituary: Thomas A. Sebeok. Sign Systems Studies 30(1): 383–385.
  3. McDowell, J. H. (2003). Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001). Journal of American Folklore.
  4. Marcel Danesi and Albert Valdman (2004). Thomas A. Sebeok. Language. Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 312-317
  5. Brier S. (2003). Thomas Sebeok: Mister (Bio)semiotics. An obituary for Thomas A. Sebeok. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 10(1): 102-105(4)
  6. Anderson, Myrdene (2003). "Thomas Albert Sebeok (1920-2001)". American Anthropologist. 105: 228–231. doi:10.1525/aa.2003.105.1.228.
  7. Kull, Kalevi (2003). Thomas A. Sebeok and biology: Building biosemiotics. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 10(1): 47–60.
  8. "Pandora's Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future".
  9. "Thomas Sebeok, 81; Linguist Debunked Theory About Apes". Los Angeles Times . January 7, 2002. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
  10. 1 2 3 "Thomas Sebeok papers, 1940-2001 and undated; A Guide to his Papers at the Indiana University Archives" . Retrieved April 12, 2020.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "Sebeok Fellow Award – Semiotic Society of America" . Retrieved November 11, 2019.
  12. Kull, Kalevi 2014. Zoosemiotics is the study of animal forms of knowing. Semiotica 198: 47–60.
  13. Watt, W. (2006). Thomas A. Sebeok: In memoriam Semiotica, Issue, 1-525. Retrieved 2 Mar. 2012, from doi : 10.1515/semi.2003.091
  14. Thomas A. Sebeok (1984). Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Memorial Institute, Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation. doi:10.2172/6705990. OSTI   6705990.
  15. Umberto Eco (1995). The search for the perfect language . Wiley-Blackwell. pp.  176–177. ISBN   0-631-17465-6.
  16. Lapidos, Juliet (November 16, 2009). "Atomic priesthoods, thorn landscapes, and Munchian pictograms". Slate. Retrieved September 19, 2009.
  17. Gift from an illustrious semiotician enriches Tartu University. Postimees , 10-10-2011. (in Estonian)
  18. 'Introducing the Tenth and Eleventh SSA Sebeok Fellows: Vincent Colapietro and Nathan Houser', The American Journal of Semiotics, Volume 36, Issue 1/2, 2020 (Sebeok Fellows Issue: Vincent Colapietro and Nathan Houser).