History of the department
The Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu is one of the leading centres of semiotics in Europe. With deep roots in semiotics of culture and biosemiotics it has become a vibrant interdisciplinary research environment. Works of Juri Lotman, the founder of the world-renowned Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics, and the forerunner of biosemiotics Jakob von Uexküll form the cornerstones of Tartu semiotic research. In addition to these two eminent semioticians, there have been several other scientists that have influenced the development of semiotics in the University of Tartu. For example the founding father of embryology and ecology Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), Polish linguist and slavist Jan I. N. Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929), who worked in Tartu in the years 1883-1893, during which he formulated the main principles of his phoneme theory, and Estonian linguist Jakob Linzbach (1874-1953), who set himself to formulate a universal language.
The Department of Semiotics was created in the University of Tartu in 1992. The Department of Semiotics is part of the Faculty of Arts and Humanitites, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics from 2007, and also belongs to the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory. The heads of the department have been Igor Černov (1992-1997), Peeter Torop (1997-2006), Kalevi Kull (2006 - 2018) and Timo Maran (2018 - ... ).
DEPARTMENT OF SEMIOTICS – ever moving and changing.
In early 1992, at the initiation of Juri Lotman, the chair of Russian literature of the Department of Philosophy in the Tartu National University was divided into two: the chair of Russian literature, and the chair of semiotics. Igor Černov was elected to head this new chair. During the fall semester, the members of the new chair continued to give lectures at the chair of Russian literature, while preparing new courses for the new curriculum on “Semiotics and culturology”, and supervising undergraduate students interested in semiotics. Proper lectures commenced in the spring semester of 1993.
The period of 1992-1995 saw constant reorganizations, restructurations and renamings in the university. It is difficult to determine from extant documents, when precisely did the chair of semiotics become the Department of Semiotics, consisting of one chair and with Igor Černov officially as the only employee. At any rate, in February 1993, Juri Lotman, from the chair of world literature, and Mihhail Lotman, Peeter Torop and Irina Avramets from the chair of Russian literature were all transferred to the new department. At first, all teaching (lectures and seminars) was done in Russian, since the first Estonian-language group was only accepted in 1994. From 1994/1995 onward, lectures were presented in two languages and took place in two different groups (and occasionally in English).
In 1995, the Department of Semiotics was moved under the Faculty of Social Sciences, and moved to the faculty building at Tiigi Street. The curriculum changed every year, new courses were added and new lecturers came aboard. The curriculum became internationally known after its publication in the yearbook of the International Association of Semiotic Studies in 1996. International recognition was achieved with the special issue on “New Tartu Semiotics” of the European Journal for Semiotic Studies, published in 2000 (vol. 12, no. 1), and with the highest ranking from the international evaluation committee in 2001.
In 1997, Igor Černov was replaced by Professor Peeter Torop as the head of department. That same year, the Department of Semiotics acquired two new senior lecturer’s positions, which allowed the increase in the line-up of lecturers (Kalevi Kull from the Chair of Ecological Physiology and Ülle Pärli from the Chair of Russian Literature were added). Kalevi Kull had already previously read lectures to the students at the Department of Semiotics.
In 2000, nearly all departments of the University of Tartu ceased accepting students to Russian language classes, and thus all lectures for the 1st year courses were now taught either in Estonian or English, whereas students in later courses could still take lectures taught in Russian. This linguistic plurality has remained to this time: the Department of Semiotics allows exams, essays, and thesis papers to be written in three languages: Estonian, Russian, and English. In 2006, Peeter Torop was replaced by Kalevi Kull as head of department.
As a result of yet another restructuration in 2007, the Department of Semiotics became part of the Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics in the Faculty of Philosophy. The department was again moved, now to the former chemistry building (today called the Philosoficum) right next to the University’s main building. From 2009/2010 onward, students are now accepted to a full English-language masters curriculum. The creation of this curriculum was financed by the “cool curricula” measure from the Ministry of Education and Research, which supports the development of international masters’ studies in Estonia. This has brought students from all over the world to the department, including from USA, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Turkey, Taiwan, Indonesia, Iran, etc. Many alumni of this curriculum have continued their studies as doctoral students in the Department of Semiotics.