Press Release: Thomas A. Sebeok, Senior Fellow at SLIS, Passes On

Thomas Sebeok
Dec. 21, 2001
812-855-0846 (o)
888-514-3889 (p)


NOTE: "Distinguished Professor," used in the first paragraph, is a special title granted to a select number of outstanding professors and should be capitalized.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Dec. 21, 2001 -- Thomas A. Sebeok, a pioneer in the field of semiotics and Distinguished Professor emeritus of linguistics and semiotics at Indiana University, died at his home on December 21.

Semiotics is the scientific study of communication and sign functions, a discipline with widespread ramifications in the human sciences, the arts and life sciences.

Sebeok also served as chairman of the IU Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, was a professor of anthropology and of Uralic and Altaic Studies and was a fellow of the Folklore Institute.

His work in folklore, anthropology, linguistics and animal communication underscored that semiotics is an unusually diverse field. A semiotician studying human communication, for instance, would examine not only conversation but also non-verbal signs such as facial expressions and body movements that carry information along with -- and sometimes contradictory to -- the words being used.

Sebeok is survived by his wife, Jean Umiker-Sebeok [SLIS Visiting Scholar, Associate Professor of Semiotics, and Co-Director, Center for Applied Semiotics], of Bloomington, Ind., and three daughters, Veronica Sebeok Wald, of Chicago; Jessica A. Sebeok, of New Haven, Conn.; and Erica L. Sebeok, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on Nov. 9, 1920, Sebeok left Hungary in 1936 to study at Magdelene College, Cambridge University. The following year, he immigrated to the United States and became a citizen in 1944. He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago in 1941 and a master's degree in 1943 and doctorate in 1945 at Princeton University.

While at Princeton, he commuted to Columbia to pursue his studies of linguistics under the tutelage of Roman Jakobson, his doctoral dissertation director. He maintained a lifelong attachment to the University of Chicago, which awarded him a Professional Achievement Citation in 1992. Sebeok was fond of saying "I received my degree from Princeton, but my education from Chicago."

He came to IU in 1943 to assist in running the largest Army Specialized Training Program in foreign languages in the country and eventually took over the helm. He was assigned to teach courses in the Department of English, but later went on to create IU's renowned Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies.

He was offered the directorship of the Research Center for Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. Several fellowships at the Stanford University Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences gave him the opportunity to return to his avocation, biology.

A new scholarly field was born, biosemiotics. As his new academic base transformed itself into the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies in 1956, Sebeok, then a Distinguished Professor in Linguistics, established programs in semiotics and came to share with his friend and colleague, Umberto Eco, the signal honor of holding a designated chair of semiotics.

In 1991, he was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, of Linguistics, of Semiotics, and of Central Eurasian Studies.

A linguist studying Finno-Ugric languages, his linguistic fieldwork took him to Central and Eastern Europe, including Lapland and the former Soviet Union. He also carried out studies in the former Mongolian People's Republic, Mexico and in the U.S. (among the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin and the Laguna Indians of New Mexico). In addition to these studies in grammar and phonology, his interest in anthropology, folklore and literary studies led to early publications dealing with folksongs, charms, games, poems and the supernatural.

He carried out some of the first computer analyses of verbal texts and published a path-breaking volume on Mythin 1955, and Style in Language, in 1960. At the same time, he contributed to the creation of the new field of psycholinguistics, publishing, with Charles Osgood, the famous classic text, Psycholinguistics, in 1954.

By 1960, he had established himself as a scholar known for overcoming academic boundaries between subjects in his own research, in collaborations with scholars in adjacent fields, and in organizational roles as an book and journal editor, founder and officer of several academic organizations, conference organizer, and mentor.

In the 1960s, he turned to the study of human nonverbal and animal communication, publishing several seminal volumes on these topics that made important contributions to the comparative study of communication and signification. The publication of his classic Approaches to Semiotics in 1964, marked the beginning of his turn toward general semiotics (the study of signs and symbols).

His book, Speaking of Apes, presents a detailed critical evaluation of current investigations of the ability of apes to learn language. Sebeok expressed doubt that apes have such capabilities. "Investigators and experimenters accommodate themselves to the expectations of the animal subjects," Sebeok once explained. "They unwittingly enter into a subtle nonverbal communication with them while convincing themselves on the basis of their own human rules of interpretation that the apes' reactions are more humanlike than the evidence warrants."

The transmission of information among animals also was the subject Animal Communication, a book Sebeok edited. He also wrote Portraits of Linguists, a book dealing with the history of Western linguists from the late 18th century to the present.

His research succeeded in broadening the definition of semiotics beyond human language and culture to encompass human nonverbal communication as well as communication in all living organisms and sign processes within organisms. His final, global conception of semiotics -- biosemiotics -- equates life with sign interpretation or mediation. He was most proud of having brought into being a group of theoretical biologists and semioticians to pursue this field of investigation.

Sebeok once described himself as an academic Apis mellifera, who darts "solitary from flower to flower, sipping nectar, gathering pollen from flowers, serendipitously fertilizing whatever he touches." His insatiable intellectual curiosity, astounding working capacity and ease in writing yielded more than 600 books and articles. He remained prolific after his retirement from teaching in 1991.

In the past two years alone, he published Essays in Semiotics I: Life Signs; Essays in Semiotics II: Culture Signs; Forms of Meaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis (with Marcel Danesi);Global Semiotics; and Signs. An Introduction to Semiotics.

Sebeok was the recipient of five honorary doctorates -- three from European institutions, one from a U.S. university and another from a university in Argentina. He was a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and retained affiliations with other three universities until his death: the Institute for Advanced Study (Collegium Budapest), the University of Helsinki and the University of Toronto.

He also had been a visiting professor at the universities of Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois, Colorado, South Florida and Stanford, as well as Puerto Rico, Vienna, Besancon, Hamburg and Bucharest. Well-known as a forceful and stimulating teacher and speaker, over the years he held visiting appointments at 33 universities in 17 countries.

He was awarded fellowships for advanced study at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, East-West Center [Hawaii], Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, National Humanities Center, Smithsonian Institution, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, XXXInstitute for Advanced Study and Fundatia Culturala RomanaFundatia Culturala Romana.

In 1971, he was awarded a medal by the College de France in Paris for "appreciation of your uncommon contributions to French culture." In 1972, he accepted a commission from UNESCO to prepare a worldwide study of university teaching of linguistics.

Throughout his career, Sebeok contributed to and edited numerous scholarly publications, including Semiotica (journal of the International Association of Semiotic Studies), The Journal of American Folklore, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, The Semiotic Web (Yearbook of Semiotics), numerous IU-based publications in Uralic and Altaic Series and Semiotics and Toronto Studies in Semiotics.

Among his many honors, he received the Distinguished Service Award of the American Anthropological Association, IU's President's Medal of Excellence, Honorary Membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Domus Hungarica Scientiarum (Artium Prize) from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Memorial services will be announced at a later date.

Memorial contributions may be made to the University of Chicago, Office of College Development, Harper Memorial Library, Room HM586, 1116 E. 59th St., Chicago, Ill., 60637. Checks may be written to The University of Chicago and should be designated for the Undergraduate Endowment Scholarship Fund (in memory of Thomas A. Sebeok, AB41).


Thomas Sebeok, Distinguished Professor emeritus of linguistics and semiotics, was named a senior fellow at SLIS in the year 2000. Sebeok was chair emeritus of the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, and professor emeritus of anthropology, folklore, and Uralic and Altaic studies. His research interests included topics in general and applied semiotics, among them the relationship between semiotics and cognitive science.

Posted January 03, 2002

Media Contact

Ken Bikoff
Communications Specialist
Phone: (812) 856-6908