Thomas Sebeok

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Thomas Sebeok giving a lecture in Tartu. SebeokinTartu.jpg
Thomas Sebeok giving a lecture in Tartu.

Thomas Albert Sebeok (born Sebők, Hungarian:  [ˈʃɛbøːk] , in Budapest, Hungary, on November 9, 1920; died December 21, 2001 in Bloomington, Indiana) was a polymath [1] American semiotician and linguist. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Budapest Capital city of Hungary

Budapest is the capital and the most populous city of Hungary, and the tenth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits. The city had an estimated population of 1,752,286 in 2019 distributed over a land area of about 525 square kilometres. Budapest is both a city and county, and forms the centre of the Budapest metropolitan area, which has an area of 7,626 square kilometres and a population of 3,303,786, comprising 33 percent of the population of Hungary.

Kingdom of Hungary former Central European monarchy (1000–1946)

The Kingdom of Hungary was a monarchy in Central Europe that existed from the Middle Ages into the 20th century. The Principality of Hungary emerged as a Christian kingdom upon the coronation of the first king Stephen I at Esztergom around the year 1000; his family led the monarchy for 300 years. By the 12th century, the kingdom became a European middle power within the Western world.

Bloomington, Indiana City in Indiana, United States

Bloomington is a city in and the county seat of Monroe County in the southern region of the U.S. state of Indiana. It is the seventh-largest city in Indiana and the fourth-largest outside the Indianapolis metropolitan area. According to the Monroe County History Center, Bloomington is known as the "Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana." The city was established in 1818 by a group of settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia who were so impressed with "a haven of blooms" that they called it Bloomington.


Life and work

Sebeok, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, coining the term "zoosemiotics" and raising some of the issues addressed by the philosophy of mind. He was also among the founders of biosemiotics. [7] As a linguist, he published 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. He was especially renowned for his ability to bring together specialists from neighboring fields in order to generate path-breaking perspectives on, for example, the study of myth, psycholinguistics, stylistics, animal communication and biosemiotics.

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.

Philosophy of mind Branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.

Biosemiotics is a field of semiotics and biology that studies the prelinguistic meaning-making, or production and interpretation of signs and codes in the biological realm. Biosemiotics attempts to integrate the findings of biology and semiotics and proposes a paradigmatic shift in the scientific view of life, demonstrating that semiosis is one of its immanent and intrinsic features. The term biosemiotic was first used by Friedrich S. Rothschild in 1962, but Thomas Sebeok and Thure von Uexküll have implemented the term and field. The field, which challenges normative views of biology, is generally divided between theoretical and applied biosemiotics.

Based on his field of competence, Sebeok rejected the experiments on the putative linguistic abilities of apes, such as those described by David Premack, assuming the existence of a deeper, more universal and more meaningful underlying substrate: the "semiotic function".

David Premack was Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, United States. He was educated at the University of Minnesota when logical positivism was in full bloom. The departments of Psychology and Philosophy were closely allied. Herbert Feigl, Wilfred Sellars, and Paul Meehl led the philosophy seminars, while Group Dynamics was led by Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter.

In 1944, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1941, Sebeok earned a bachelor's degree at University of Chicago. He earned a master's degree in anthropological linguistics at Princeton University in 1943 and, in 1945, a doctorate at Princeton University. In 1943, he arrived at Indiana University in Bloomington, to assist 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, retiring in 1991.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of more than 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1890, the school is located on a 217-acre campus in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, near Lake Michigan. The University of Chicago holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.

Anthropological linguistics is the subfield of linguistics and anthropology, which deals with the place of language in its wider social and cultural context, and its role in making and maintaining cultural practices and societal structures. While many linguists believe that a true field of anthropological linguistics is nonexistent, preferring the term linguistic anthropology to cover this subfield, many others regard the two as interchangeable.

Sebeok was the editor-in-chief of the journal Semiotica , the leading periodical in the field, from its establishing in 1969, until 2001. [8] He was also the editor of several book series and path-breaking encyclopedias, including "Approaches to Semiotics" (over 100 volumes), "Current Trends in Linguistics", and the "Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics".

Semiotica is an academic journal covering semiotics. It is the official journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies.

In the early 1980s, Sebeok composed a report for the US Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia, [9] 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. [10] The report proposed a "folkloric relay system" and the establishment of an "atomic priesthood" of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians to preserve the true nature of hazardous site. [11]

In addition to his steady intellectual contributions to a number of fields over more than sixty years, Sebeok was a quintessential entrepreneurial scholar, organizing hundreds of international conferences and institutes, playing a key role in organizations such as the Linguistic Society of America, International Association for Semiotic Studies and the Semiotic Society of America, and in supporting the creation of linguistic and semiotics teaching programs and scholarly associations throughout the world. [12]

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. [13]

Sebeok is survived by his wife (and frequent co-author), Jean Umiker-Sebeok, and three daughters: Veronica C. Wald, Jessica A. Sebeok, and Erica L. Sebeok. Sebeok is also survived by one grandson, Oliver Thomas Sebeok Shuchart, and one granddaughter, Miranda Lynn Sebeok Shuchart.

Sebeok award

The "Sebeok fellow" award is the highest honor given by the Semiotic Society of America. The complete list of Sebeok fellows (with year of awarding):

  1. David Savan (1992)
  2. John Deely (1993)
  3. Paul Bouissac (1996)
  4. Jesper Hoffmeyer (2000)
  5. Kalevi Kull (2003)
  6. Floyd Merrell (2005)
  7. Susan Petrilli (2008)
  8. Irmengard Rauch (2011)
  9. Paul Cobley (2014)
  10. Vincent Colapietro (2018)


Related Research Articles

Semiotics is the study of sign process (semiosis). It includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. It is not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition called semiology, which is a subset of semiotics.

Yuri Lotman Estonian semiotician

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was a prominent literary scholar, semiotician, and cultural historian, who worked at the University of Tartu. He was a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. He was the 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 intellectuals, is immense.

Jakob von Uexküll Baltic German biologist, zoologist, and philosopher

Jakob Johann Freiherr von Uexküll was a Baltic German biologist who worked in the fields of muscular physiology, animal behaviour studies, and the cybernetics of life. However, his most notable contribution is the notion of Umwelt, used by semiotician Thomas Sebeok and philosopher Martin Heidegger. His works established biosemiotics as a field of research.

<i>Umwelt</i> biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal

In the semiotic theories of Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok, umwelt is the "biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter 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 subject of umwelt and Uexküll's work is described by Dorion Sagan in an introduction to a collection of translations. The term umwelt, together with companion terms Umgebung and Innenwelt, have special relevance for cognitive philosophers, roboticists and cyberneticians, since they offer a solution to the conundrum of the infinite regress of the Cartesian Theater.

Semiosphere is the sphere of semiosis in which sign processes operate in the set of all interconnected Umwelten. The concept was coined by Yuri Lotman in 1984 and is now applied to many fields, including cultural semiotics generally, biosemiotics, zoosemiotics, geosemiotics, etc. The concept is treated more fully in the collection of Lotman's writings published in English under the title "Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture"(1990)

John Deely American philosopher and semiotician

John Deely was an American philosopher and semiotician. He was a professor of philosophy at Saint Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Prior to this, he held the Rudman Chair of Graduate Philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies, located at the University of St. Thomas (Houston).

In the study of the biological sciences, biocommunication is any specific type of communication within (intraspecific) or between (interspecific) species of plants, animals, fungi, protozoa and microorganisms. Communication basically means sign-mediated interactions following three levels of rules. Signs in most cases are chemical molecules (semiochemicals), but also tactile, or as in animals also visual and auditive. Biocommunication of animals may include vocalizations, or pheromone production, chemical signals between plants and animals, and chemically mediated communication between plants and within plants.

Martin Krampen was a leading German semiotician, semiotics Professor in Göttingen.

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.

Giorgio Prodi was an Italian medical scientist, oncologist and semiotician.

International Association for Semiotic Studies is the major world organisation of semioticians, established in 1969.

The Semiotic Society of America is an interdisciplinary professional association serving scholars from many disciplines with common interests in semiotics, the study of signs and sign-systems. It was founded in 1975 and includes members from the United States and Canada. Its official journal is The American Journal of Semiotics. The Society also publishes the proceedings of its annual conferences. Memberships in the society and publication of the journal are managed by the Philosophy Documentation Center.

Jesper Hoffmeyer Danish biologist

Jesper Hoffmeyer is emeritus professor at the University of Copenhagen Institute of Biology, and is a leading figure in the emerging field of biosemiotics. He is President of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies (ISBS), co-editor of the journal Biosemiotics and the Springer Book series in Biosemiotics. He has authored the book Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs, Signs of Meaning in the Universe and edited A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics.

Augusto Ponzio philosopher

Augusto Ponzio is an Italian semiologist and philosopher.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to semiotics:

Semiotics of culture is a research field within semiotics that attempts to define culture from semiotic perspective and as a type of human symbolic activity, creation of signs and a way of giving meaning to everything around. Therefore, here culture is understood as a system of symbols or meaningful signs. Because the main sign system is the linguistic system, the field is usually referred to as semiotics of culture and language. Under this field of study symbols are analyzed and categorized in certain class within the hierarchal system. With postmodernity, metanarratives are no longer as pervasive and thus categorizing these symbols in this postmodern age is more difficult and rather critical.

The Copenhagen–Tartu school of biosemiotics is a loose network of scholars working within the discipline of biosemiotics at the University of Tartu and the University of Copenhagen.

Susan Petrilli

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. 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, M. (2003), Thomas Albert Sebeok (1920–2001). American Anthropologist 105: 228–231.
  7. Kull, Kalevi (2003). Thomas A. Sebeok and biology: Building biosemiotics. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 10(1): 47–60.
  8. Watt, W. (2006). Thomas A. Sebeok: In memoriam Semiotica, Issue, 1-525. Retrieved 2 Mar. 2012, from doi : 10.1515/semi.2003.091
  9. Thomas A. Sebeok (1984). Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Memorial Institute, Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation.
  10. Umberto Eco (1995). The search for the perfect language. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 176–177. ISBN   0-631-17465-6.
  11. Lapidos, Juliet (2009-11-16). "Atomic priesthoods, thorn landscapes, and Munchian pictograms". Slate. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
  12. Gift from an illustrious semiotician enriches Tartu University. Postimees , 10-10-2011. (in Estonian)