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IASS-AIS
International Association for Semiotic Studies --
Association Internationale de Sémiotique
  
   Thomas A. Sebeok
November 9, 1920 - December 21, 2001


Thomas A. Sebeok, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, of Linguistics, of Semiotics, and of Central Asian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, was born on November 9, 1920, in Budapest, Hungary, and died peacefully at his home in Bloomington, Indiana, on December 21. He is survived by his wife, Jean Umiker-Sebeok, herself a Professor of Semiotics at Indiana University, and their three daughters Veronica, Jessica, and Erica. He acted as the Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica, the journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies IASS-AIS, from its inception, and he fulfilled this duty with never-ending devotion until the end of his life. In this function he also was a Member of the Board of the IASS-AIS since its foundation in 1969, and one of the Association's most important promotors.

Sebeok left Hungary in 1936 to study at Magdalene College, Cambridge University, but already in 1937 he immigrated to the United States of America, to become a citizen in 1944. He earned a B.A. at the University of Chicago, and an M.A. (1943) and Ph.D. (1945) at Princeton University. While at Princeton, he commuted to Columbia University to continue his study of linguistics under Roman Jakobson, his dissertation director, and was also a disciple of Chicago-based Charles W. Morris. That is, he could count two progenitors of the discipline - or rather, transdiscipline - semiotics in the modern sense among his most influential teachers. So Sebeok's path to grow to a classic of semiotics himself - as he is generally considered now - was already paved in Chicago (a fact he often used to emphasize).

He came to Indiana University in 1943 to work in the Army Specialized Training Program in foreign languages, and directed it after a while. Then he created the renowned Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies and was offered the directorship of the Research Center for Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. Several Stanford fellowships enabled him also to deal with his special field of interest, i.e. biology, as the basis of what he later on developed to a new scholarly field, biosemiotics. The famous Center for semiotics came into being by transformation of the mentioned anthropological one to the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies (RCLSS) in 1956, one of the most influential academic institutions in the world of semiotics for decades, with Thomas A. Sebeok as its Director.

As a specialist in Finno-Ugric languages, Sebeok did linguistic fieldwork in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe, and the Soviet Union. He also carried out studies in Mongolia, Mexico, and the United States, and he was among the first to deal with computerized text analysis and to contribute to the new field of psycholinguistics. By 1960, he already had established himself as a renowned scholar of interdisciplinary range. In the 60s he turned more and more to the study of nonverbal and animal communication, and to the study of signification and communication, the two complementary subject matters of semiotics, as he used to emphasize.

In his long and rich scholarly life, Sebeok received five honorary doctorates, he was a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and affiliated to Collegium Budapest, to the University of Helsinki, and the University of Toronto. He acted as visiting professor at many universities in the United States and abroad, he gave guest lectures at numerous universities all around the world, he was awarded several fellowships for advanced studies, presided, among other academic duties, over the Linguistic Society of America and the Semiotic Society of America, and acted as a member and honorary member of several scientific associations in semiotics and related disciplines (among them as Honorary President of the Austrian Association for Semiotics). After having retired in 1991, he nonetheless vitally continued to give lectures and lectures series on all continents, and still subtly pulled the strings particularly of the semiotic network, or "web" (not by chance, The Semiotic Web was the title of a yearbook series co-edited by him). He also led the Semiotics Publications Department at Indiana University until his death.

As a polymath, teacher, and editor he belongs to the most renowned exponents of semiotics in the second half of the 20th century, based on his numerous books and even more numerous essays and other writings on general semiotics, biosemiotics, zoosemiotics and linguistics, and further remarkable texts in and on fields like psycholinguistics, mythology, folklore, ethology, stylistics, theory of art. Beside editing Semiotica, he was for decades the Series Editor responsible for the leading book series Advances in Semiotics, Approaches to Semiotics, Approaches to Applied Semiotics, and Topics in Contemporary Semiotics, and he distinguished himself particularly as the General Editor of the three tomes standard reference work Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (1986; recently appeared in revised and enlarged form). By means of his scientific, institutional, and editorial efforts he exerted steady influence on the development of semiotics as a (trans)discipline.

In the scientific as well as in the broader public, Thomas A. Sebeok's name is associated most of all with the term zoosemiotics, coined in 1963 and signifying that semiotic branch concerned with the study of animal sign use. In deals with the species-specific communication systems and their foundations, that is, the so-called "language of animals", or rather, their signifying behavior, and this in a synchronic perspective (while ethology examines the diachronic dimension). Therefore, this discipline figures, in Sebeok's view, between ethology and semiotics as such which, according to this definition, reduces itself to an anthroposemiotics, comprising even in this delimitation many components close to, or based on, animal communication (that is, the semiotics of humans divides, in his understanding, into anthropo- and zoosemiotic components, the first comprising e.g. language plus "verbal macro-structures", artificial languages as well as more complex language-independent sign systems, while the latter includes fields like para-linguistics, non-verbal communication, proxemics, etc.). Zoosemiotics itself divides into zoosyntax, -semantics and -pragmatics; further, Sebeok methodologically asked for a pure, a descriptive, and an applied zoosemiotics. Sebeok's particular view of anthroposemiotics as an interface between two realms results from his finding that zoosemiotics rests on the more comprehensive science of biosemiotics, as whose most prominent representative he himself must be considered actually. Biosemiotics is already prefigured in Jakob von Uexküll's work, that is, in his Umweltlehre, which at the same time is, or contains, a doctrine of signs and of meaning. Sebeok fruitfully combined the influences of von Uexküll and Charles S. Peirce, to merge them into an original and homogeneous whole comprising, on the one hand, an evolutionary perspective, and bringing forth new paradigms, on the other, for instance by the distinction between exo- and endosemiotics (the first concerned with inter-organismic, the latter with intra-organismic sign events). In this vein, Sebeok particularly in more recent times dwelled upon the prime conditions of life as well as of semiosis, arriving at the thesis that symbiosis and semiosis are one and the same.

Connected with the complex of bio-/zoosemiotics is also Sebeok's strong interest in medical semiotics. Its roots can be traced back to antiquity, to Hippocrates and Galen, since the ancient physicians already were skilled "sign readers", and some of them have described and also theoretically reflected their diagnostic systems. That is, beside the nowadays much better known linguistic and philosophical points of departure of modern semiotics, the medical tradition can right well be traced back as a third strand of its very own, with relevance until today. It is a remarkable fact that in the field of medical diagnostics and symptomatology (foremost in veterinary medicine) the terms "semiotics" and/or "semeiotics" were in use till the end of the 19th century. But there is no doubt, the relationship between semiotics and medicine is much more intricate, and exactly this complex interplay is addressed in Sebeok's research who, on the other hand, has proved to be a meritful historiographer of medical semiotics, too (as of semiotics in general!). Apart from all this, he has authored countless contributions on more "established" semiotic, linguistic, etc. topics which, however, more often than not supply references to the biosemiotic paradigm.

As a testimony of the broad scope of his scientific interests and activities follows a selection of Thomas A. Sebeok's most pertinent books as author, editor or co-editor: Spoken Hungarian (1945), Spoken Finnish (1947), Studies in Cheremis Folklore (1952), Psycholinguistics: A Survey of Theory and Research Problems (1953), Myth (1955; ed.), Studies in Cheremis 2. The Supernatural (1955; and further vols.), American Studies in Uralic Linguistics (1960; ed.), Style in Language (1960), Soviet and East European Linguistics (1963; ed.), Approaches to Semiotics: Cultural Anthropology, Education, Linguistics, Psychiatry, Psychology (1964; ed.), Selected Writings of Gyula Laziczius (1966; ed.), Theoretical Foundations (1966; ed.), Communication Systems and Resources in the Behavioral Sciences (1967), Linguistics in East Asia and South East Asia (1967; ed.), Animal Communication: Techniques of Study and Results of Research (1968; ed.), Ibero-American and Caribbean Linguistics (1968; ed.), Approaches to Animal Communication (1969; ed.), Linguistics in South West Asia and North Africa (1970; ed.), Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (1971; ed.), Linguistics in Oceania (1971; ed.), Paralinguistica e cinesica (1971; ed.), Linguistics in Western Europe (1972; ed.), Perspectives in Zoosemiotics (1972), Linguistics in North America (1972; ed.), Diachronic, Areal, and Typological Linguistics (1973; ed.), Linguistics and Adjacent Arts and Sciences (1974/75; 4 vols.; ed.), Six Species of the Sign: Some Propositions and Strictures (1974), Structure and Texture: Selected Essays... (1974), Historiography of Linguistics (1975; ed.), The Tell-Tale Sign (1975; ed.), Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs (1976), Native Languages of the Americas 1 & 2 (1976/77; ed.), How Animals Communicate (1977; ed.), A Perfusion of Signs (1977; ed.), Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia (1978; 2 vols.; ed.), Cheremis Literary Reader (1978; ed.), Sight, Sound, and Sense (1978; ed.), The Sign & Its Masters (1979), Speaking of Apes (1979; ed.), "You Know My Method" - A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes (1980), The Clever Hans Phenomenon: Communication with Horses, Whales, Apes, and People (1981; ed.), The Play of Musement (1981), The Sign of Three: Holmes, Dupin, Peirce (1983; ed.), Sign, System and Function (1984; ed.), Classics of Modern Semiotics (1985; ed.), The Semiotic Sphere (1986; ed.), I Think I am a Verb (1986), Monastic Sign Languages (1987; ed.), Essays in Zoosemiotics (1990), A Sign is Just a Sign (1991), Semiotics in the United States (1991), American Signatures: Semiotic Inquiry and Method (1991), Signs. An Introduction to Semiotics (1994), Semiotik: Ein Handbuch zu den zeichentheoretischen Grundlagen von Natur und Kultur (2 vols. 1997/1999; vol. 3 to appear; ed.); and just recently Essays in Semiotics I: Life Signs & II: Culture Signs; Forms of Meaning: Modelling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis; Global Semiotics; and Signs. An Introduction to Semiotics. Moreover, translations into numerous languages.

It is no exaggeration to state that Thomas A. Sebeok must be considered a main driving force, actually the spiritus rector of our scientific community since many, many years. His death leaves a deep void in our hearts and minds. This is a great loss not only for our Association, but for the entire world of semiotics, and the sciences in general.

[jb]
 

 
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Created: January 20, 1998 / Last Update: December 30, 2001 (Gloria Withalm, IASS-AIS)
 
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