Biosemiotics Achievement Award 2022

The winner of the Biosemiotic Achievement Award 2022 is:

Sigmund Onstad for his article “Simple Utterances but Complex Understanding? Meta-studying the Fuzzy Mismatch between Animal Semantic Capacities in Varied Contexts“.

This meta-study of animal semantics is anchored in two claims, seemingly creating a fuzzy mismatch, that animal utterances generally appear to be simple in structure and content variation and that animals’ communicative understanding seems disproportionally more advanced. A set of excerpted, new studies is chosen as basis to discuss whether the semantics of animal uttering and understanding can be fused into one. Studies are prioritised due to their relatively complex designs, giving priority to dynamics between syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and between utterers and receivers in context. A communicational framework based on utterance theory is applied as a lens for inspection of how these aspects relate to the assumed mismatch. Inspection and discussions of the studies bring several features to surface of which five are stressed in the following. Firstly, both syntactic structures and possible semantic content are seen as lean, although richer than earlier believed, and research continues to reveal new complexities in utterances. Secondly, there is a clear willingness to broaden the perception of animals’ semantic capacity to comprehend communication both by arguing theoretically and by generating empirical research in new contexts. Thirdly, the ambition to make sense of these tendencies is still often motivated by an evolutionary search for early building blocks for verbal language, with the pro et cons that such a position can have. Fourthly, the ‘allowed’ scientific frame for studying semantic capacity among animals is extended to new fields and contexts challenging the only-in-the-wild norm. Fifthly, the dilemma of integrating uttering and understanding as aspects of an after all functional communicational system, calls for new epistemological concepts to make sense of the claimed mismatch. Affordances, abduction, life-genre, and lifeworld are suggested.