Thomas Sebeok

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Thomas Sebeok
SebeokinTartu (cropped).jpg
Thomas Sebeok giving a lecture in Tartu.
Born(1920-11-09)9 November 1920
Died21 December 2001(2001-12-21) (aged 81)
Alma mater University of Chicago
Spouse(s)D. Jean Umiker-Sebeok
Main interests
Semiotics (biosemiotics, zoosemiotics)
Dezso Sebeok and Vera Perlmann and their son Thomas (c. 1924) Dezso Sebeok and Vera Perlmann and their son Thomas Albert Sebeok (c1924).jpg
Dezső Sebeok and Vera Perlmann and their son Thomas (c. 1924)

Thomas Albert Sebeok (born Sebők, Hungarian:  [ˈʃɛbøːk] ; 1920–2001) was an 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 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 on the dissertation 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, 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. Sebeok retired in 1991. [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), and Vincent Colapietro (2018). [11]

Selected English publications

Related Research Articles

Semiotics is the study of sign process (semiosis), which is any form of activity, conduct, or any process that involves signs, including the production of meaning. A sign is anything that communicates a meaning, that is not the sign itself, to the interpreter of the sign. 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 communicate through any of the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory.

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 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, or production and interpretation of signs and codes 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.

Jakob Johann 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> Bological 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 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)

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.

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).

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.

Jesper Hoffmeyer Danish biologist

Jesper Hoffmeyer was a professor at the University of Copenhagen Institute of Biology, and a leading figure in the emerging field of biosemiotics. He was the President of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies (ISBS) from 2005 to 2015, co-editor of the journal Biosemiotics and the Springer Book series in Biosemiotics. He authored the books Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs and Signs of Meaning in the Universe and edited A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics.

Augusto Ponzio Italian philosopher

Augusto Ponzio is an Italian semiologist and philosopher.

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

Irmengard Rauch is a linguist and semiotician.

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. 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, 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. "Pandora's Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future".
  9. "Thomas Sebeok, 81; Linguist Debunked Theory About Apes" . Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  10. 1 2 3 "Thomas Sebeok papers, 1940-2001 and undated; A Guide to his Papers at the Indiana University Archives" . Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "Sebeok Fellow Award – Semiotic Society of America" . Retrieved 2019-11-11.
  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. 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 (2009-11-16). "Atomic priesthoods, thorn landscapes, and Munchian pictograms". Slate. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
  17. Gift from an illustrious semiotician enriches Tartu University. Postimees , 10-10-2011. (in Estonian)