Sedsu – Stages in the Evolution and development of Sign Use

NEST Pathfinder ‘What it means to be human

The 6th Framework Programme of the European Union

A project in collaboration between Goldsmith College, London, UK; CNRS Marseille, France; University of Portsmouth, London, UK; Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany; Department of linguistics, Department of semiotics and Department of Cogntive Sciences, University of Lund, Sweden; CNRS Rome, Italy.

Started in April 2005


An advanced ability to use and interpret signs is one of the characteristic features of human beings, setting us apart from the rest of the animal world. Through the SEDSU project, European specialists in human and primate cognition will study how sign use changes with the evolutionary development of species and within individual development. A better understanding of the different factors underlying sign acquisition in humans will have important implications for social and educational policies.

The question of what makes us human has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists across the centuries. Recent advances in genome sequencing have made the debate even more pertinent, as we now know that the quantitative genetic differences between us and many other mammalian, particularly primate, species, are extremely small. The SEDSU project aims to provide one answer by demonstrating that what characterises humans is their advanced ability to engage in sign use.

By studying the relationship between five distinct cognitive domains and their roles in the development of sign use and language, the project team will show how sign use changes, both with the evolutionary development of species and within the lifestage development of individuals. The five domains – perception and categorisation; iconicity and pictures; spatial conceptualisation and metaphor; imitation and mimesis; and inter-subjectivity and conventions – are each characterised by a developmental profile linked to a distinct semiotic process, such as the use of pictorial representations or gesturing.

Using an interdisciplinary approach and a specially developed set of analytical tools, the team hopes to demonstrate that the transition from one developmental stage to another can be explained by the acquisition of a cognitive ability to use more advanced forms of signs, and to differentiate between the sign itself – such as a word or an abstract symbol – and what it represents.

Work packages:

(a) Perception and Categorisation Work package leader: Pam Heaton (Goldsmith)

(b) Iconicity and Pictures Work package leader: Joël Fagot (Marseille)

(c) Spatial Concepts and Metaphor Work package leader: Chris Sinha (Portsmough)

(d) Imitation and Mimesis Work package leader: Josep Call (Leipzig)

(e) Intersubjectivity and Conventions     Work package leader: Jordan Zlatev (Lund)

(f) Theoretical Conclusion     Work package leader: Göran Sonesson (Lund)

More information about the project (in English, French, Italian, German and Swedish)

Also see SEDSU-Lund


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