Thomas Sebeok, 81; Linguist Debunked Theory About Apes

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Thomas A. Sebeok, who gained international attention by debunking optimistic theories that chimpanzees and other apes could learn and communicate in human language and by proposing the use of a “Tutankhamen phenomenon” to warn people away from nuclear waste sites, has died. He was 81.

Sebeok, a prolific author and professor of anthropology, linguistics and semiotics at Indiana University from 1943 to 1991, died Dec. 21 of leukemia at his home in Bloomington, Ind.

Above all a linguist, Sebeok expanded thinking about various forms of communication, including the field he pioneered called semiotics, or the analysis of signs in language and communication. Despite what one advertising expert called “the discipline’s fearsome terminology,” Sebeok’s science intrigued people such as military and governmental leaders, advertising executives and zookeepers with its applications to their widely varied problems.


Sebeok, who wrote and edited more than 60 books, published his first, “Spoken Hungarian,” in 1944 for the U.S. Armed Forces Institute. He maintained a long association with the military, teaching those in uniform Eastern European and Asian languages and particularly Russian. He headed Indiana University’s Air Force Language Training Program for more than a decade.

As various anthropologists posited the concept of teaching human language to chimps and other apes, further connecting the animals to mankind’s family tree, Sebeok set out to prove them wrong. Through his books, such as “Animal Communication,” which he wrote in 1968, and “Speaking of Apes,” which he edited with his wife, Jean Umiker-Sebeok, in 1980, Sebeok said his research proved that apes lacked the necessary organs--such as vocal cords--for language. Furthermore, he said, they lacked the intelligence or physical means to pass language along to their offspring.

In the early 1980s, Sebeok was part of a team of nuclear physicists, linguists, engineers, psychologists and others appointed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to devise warnings for proposed burial sites for radioactive garbage. According to the mandate, such signs must survive the inevitable evolution of language for 10,000 years, the expected duration of the radiation danger.

Sebeok proposed a three-pronged system, beginning with the posting of durable danger markers or signs containing words and cartoon pictures. Secondly, he suggested, sites should be inspected every century and the posted warnings updated in current parlance.

But it was his third suggestion that attracted the most attention, and even some ridicule. He said an “atomic priesthood” of scientists and scholars, with new ones appointed to replace those who died, should pass along myths of evil spirits akin to the “curse of the pharaohs” to thwart trespassing by any humans unable to read. He called the theory the “Tutankhamen phenomenon,” alluding to supposed curses protecting the Egyptian boy pharaoh’s tomb discovered by archeologist Howard Carter eight decades ago.

Business, like government, was interested in Sebeok’s work. When his collection of essays titled “A Sign Is Just a Sign” was published in 1991, the American Marketing Assn.’s Journal of Marketing urged members to read “this difficult book.” Why?


“Because,” wrote a reviewer, “the book’s new and exciting ideas about communication stretch the mind [and] offer a stimulating and satisfying mental aerobics workout. On a more practical level, Sebeok’s ideas also have provocative implications for marketing theory and practice.”

A greater understanding of nonverbal pictorial signs, the reviewer explained, could greatly aid international marketing and help avoid deceptive advertising practices.

Sebeok, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, had a lawyer-economist for a father. The boy left to study at Cambridge and came to the United States when he was 17. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago and master’s and doctorate degrees from Princeton, then settled in to teach, conduct research and write at Indiana University.

Sebeok was founding chairman of its Uralic and Altaic studies department, chairman of its Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies and chairman of its graduate program in semiotic studies.

During his long career, Sebeok was a visiting professor at 33 educational institutions in 17 countries, among them California’s Stanford University and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Among Sebeok’s myriad awards was the somewhat whimsical Nobuhara Award from the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club in 1982. The group paid homage to the book Sebeok had written a year or so earlier with his wife, “You Know My Method: A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes.”


Sebeok is survived by his wife and collaborator, Jean Umiker-Sebeok; a daughter from his first marriage; and two daughters from his second marriage.