World Report

An International Masters Program in Semiotics is created at Tartu University

By Katre Väli and Kalevi Kull

A Semiotics Master program will be launched in Tartu in the fall of 2009. The teaching of semiotics as a specialised program started at the University of Tartu (Estonia) in 1993. Since then, full semiotics degree programs on Bachelor, Master and PhD levels have been offered. Except for the possibility of doctoral studies in English, the undergraduate and graduate level curricula were taught in Estonian (and in the 1990s also in Russian). The Department of Semiotics is pleased to announce the launching of a new English MA program in the fall of 2009. This international program will attempt to cover major approaches in semiotics, i.e. it will combine different traditions of semiotics from Charles S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure to the leading contemporary and innovative schools of thought. The program has been selected by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research as one of the winners of the 2008 national competition for the most attractive international degree programs in Estonia.

The curriculum has a theoretical and cultural emphasis as it carries forward the heritage of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, pointing out possible applications in order to solve contemporary research problems. Taking into account the inherently transdisciplinary nature of semiotics, the curriculum is interdisciplinary, providing in-depth studies in cultural, socio- and biosemiotics.

Previous degrees in semiotics are not required to apply for the program. The program will accept students who have completed their undergraduate studies in various fields. Students from the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences will be welcome as well as people with practical artistic backgrounds (painters, actors, musicians, writers etc.).

The Semiotics Department of the University of Tartu was established in 1992. Its staff — faculty and researchers — now includes 20 scholars. The number of students with semiotics as their major is currently 150. The department is a part of the Faculty of Philosophy. The Semiotics Department belongs to the new Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory and to all key networks in the field (International Association for Semiotic Studies, European Semiotic Society, Semiotic Society of America), and has connections with many semiotic centres both in the world and in the region (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Russia). The University of Tartu is proud of its honorary Doctors of Semiotics, Thure von Uexküll and Umberto Eco.

Tartu is recognized as a major world centre for scholarship in semiotics. It is intimately associated with two inspiring figures of semiotics — Juri Lotman, the pioneer of the semiotics of culture, and Jakob von Uexküll, the pioneer of biosemiotics.

The finest collections of semiotic materials can be found in Tartu such as the memorial library of Thomas A. Sebeok, one of the world leaders in the 20th century semiotics, and the Centre Jakob von Uexküll, a Baltic German, whose works are widely used in semiotics, anthropology, philosophy, and animal communication studies. A rich collection of archive materials and the large library of Juri Lotman are available in the Tartu University Library and in the Estonian Semiotics Repository in Tallinn.

Contemporary semiotic research is not based on one single figure, but instead on a group of eminent scholars working in the different branches of semiotics.

Program Outline

The master program welcomes students from different educational spheres enabling them to analyse their works, develop and interpret their speciality or skills. Studies offer expertise to work in the fields that require complex knowledge of culture or humanitarian science, for instance international semiotic consultation companies, media theorists, culture critics. Practical applications include translation, design, advertising and communication strategies. One of the focuses is on the history and theoretical texts of the Tartu-Moscow School. Students will learn the main (qualitative) methods of semiotic analysis and the possibilities to apply them in the interpretation of cultural phenomena. Of course all the alumni are welcome to continue on to doctoral studies and research, in Estonia as well as abroad.

The lecturers will be from Estonia, including also intensive courses held by visiting professors and researchers. The University of Tartu collaborates and is regularly visited by professors from all around the world: Myrdene Anderson, Paul Bouissac, John Deely, Dinda Gorlée, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Winfried Nöth, Roland Posner, Frederik Stjernfelt, Eero Tarasti, and many others.

Curriculum Structure

Curriculum consists of the introductory General module (30 ECTS), the Speciality module (54 ECTS) with three submodules (18 ECTS each), elective courses (any relevant courses with instruction in English available at the University of Tartu — 6 ECTS), and the writing of Master’s thesis (individual research paper, written under supervision of a professional semiotician — 30 ECTS) — altogether 120 ECTS. The program includes the following courses:

General module:

  • History of Semiotics: Basic Concepts and Classical Works

  • Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School

  • Readings of J. von Uexküll and J. Lotman

  • Methodology for Semiotic Analysis

  • Master’s seminar

Speciality module:

1. Culture module (18 ECTS):

  • Cultural Semiotics and Theories of Culture

  • Semiotics of Art

  • Semiotics of Translation

  • Semiotic Analysis of Performance and Multimediality

2. Nature module (18 ECTS):

  • Biosemiotics

  • Ecosemiotics: Cultural Interpretations of Nature

  • Zoösemiotics: Umwelt and Animal Communication

  • Landscape Semiotics

3. Society module (18 ECTS):

  • Sociosemiotics and Societal Theories

  • Ideology and the Concept of Identity

  • Models of Communication and Mass Media

  • Semiotic Analysis of Subcultures

Program duration is two years, including three semesters of study, and one semester for master’s thesis writing.

For applicants of the study year 2009/2010, 15 scholarships will be available covering full tuition for 2 years of the program. Scholarship request letter must be included with the application. Additionally stipends are available for students with the best academic results.

All of the further questions and inquiries are gladly received and answered by Katre Väli (, phone +372 737 6155, mobile +372 5263275). More information about the Department of Semiotics and the semiotic work in Tartu can be found on the department's webpage.