From Dario Martinell A Critical Companion to Zoosemiotics: People, Paths, Ideas
Zoosemiotics is a field of inquiry introduced in 1963 by Thomas Albert Sebeok.
That is the year when the term and a first definition make their first appearance, initially
as a compromise between ethological and semiotic research (in the beginning,
Sebeok was convinced that “zoosemiotics” had to be meant mostly as an umbrella
term, gathering different scholarly approaches to animal communication). A synthetic
definition of zoosemiotics, in the light of its most recent developments, can
be today that of the study of semiosis within and across animal species. A spectrum
of different possible definitions of the term has been attempted (in the next chapter
of this book), but at the end of the day it is probably safe to trace a common ground
in the way just mentioned.
The implications of this definition are crucial. First of all, the focus of zoosemiotics
is not simply communication (which is what people normally expect to be
the actual goal of semiotics), but rather the broader Semiosis, i.e., following Charles
Morris, the process in which something is a sign to some organism. Communication,
the process in which a sign is coded and transmitted from a sender to a receiver, is
thus to be considered a special, therefore smaller, case of semiosis.
By consequence, zoosemiotics is interested in at least three important semiotic
(a) Signification, occurring when the receiver is the only subject taking part in the
semiosis, and a true sender is missing. In other words, zoosemiotics studies here
the way animals make sense out of each other, or out of their environment;
(b) Representation, occurring when the sender is the only semiotic subject. In this
case, zoosemiotics studies here the way animals construct sense and, often but
not always, offer it to somebody else; and
(c) Communication, occurring when sender and receiver take both part in the
semiotic phenomenon, and therefore the above-mentioned “sense” (or text) is
exchanged, understood or misunderstood.