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Istvan Adolphe (Stephen) Wurm (1922–2001)

by Darrell Tryon

Stephen Wurm, by Helen Groger-Wurm, 1965

Stephen Wurm, by Helen Groger-Wurm, 1965

ANU Archives, ANUA 260-394-648

Australia suffered a colossal loss with the passing of Professor Stephen Adolphe Wurm, a brilliant linguist whose illustrious career spanned almost 50 years.

Stephen was a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia since 1967, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities since 1977. He was President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and concurrently President of the Union Académique Internationale (Brussels) from 1986 to 1989. Among other important offices he held, he was President of the International Council of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies (UNESCO, Paris) 1988–97, and from 1997 until the time of his death he was President of the International Council of Linguists (CIPL, Netherlands).

He was born Istvan (Stephen) Adolphe Wurm in Budapest on 19 August 1922. His father was German-speaking and his mother was Hungarian. Stephen’s early life was spent mostly in Vienna and in Hungary. His father, who died before Stephen was born, was a very successful banker who spoke 17 languages, a gift that Stephen no doubt inherited, as he himself is credited with fluency in 10 languages by the time he had reached adulthood.

As he was born stateless, Stephen was able to avoid military service during World War II, enabling him to undertake studies at the University of Vienna. There he studied Turkic languages and cultures at the Oriental Institute. He was awarded his doctorate in linguistics and social anthropology in 1944, his dissertation being on the Uzbek dialects.

Stephen married Helene Maria Groeger, a recent PhD in African ethnography in Vienna in 1946. From 1945–51, he lectured in Altaic linguistics at the University of Vienna. During this period he also became interested in the languages of Papua New Guinea, when he discovered the works of S.H. Ray. This was to prove a turning point in his life. Wurm began to correspond with Arthur Capell, at the University of Sydney, the leading Australian anthropological linguist between 1900–60. Capell sent Wurm his field notes on Kiwai, a language of the Western Province of Papua, and Stephen published a book on that language in 1951, long before he first visited New Guinea.

In 1951, Stephen Wurm applied for the post of Government Linguist in Port Moresby. However, as the bureaucracy worked slowly, by the time the offer reached him he had already accepted a post at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, to assist with the setting up of the Central Asian Research Institute in association with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Wurm came to Australia in 1954 as a Research Fellow in Oceanic linguistics at the University of Sydney, where he joined forces with Capell. During his time at Sydney, Stephen threw himself into the study of Australian Aboriginal languages, riding around the country on his newly purchased motorbike with sidecar, often accompanied by his wife Helen or by Arthur Capell. He recorded a sizeable amount of data on some 40 languages and dialects in New South Wales, Southeast Queensland and Cape York. For many of these languages, a number of which are now extinct, Wurm’s materials remain the only source today.

It was in the Linguistics Department of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University, however, that Stephen Wurm was to realise his greatest achievements over the next 40 years. He was appointed as a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology there in 1957 and Professor of Linguistics in 1968 when anthropology was split into three separate departments: anthropology, linguistics and prehistory.

After his appointment to the ANU, Stephen Wurm’s research focused chiefly on Papua New Guinea, although he continued to publish on Australian Aboriginal languages. One of his greatest achievements was in shaping and leading a pioneering research program on the languages of Papua New Guinea and the southwest Pacific. It was he and his research team who first unravelled the mysteries of this linguistic Babel, where more than a quarter of the world’s languages are spoken. Perhaps Stephen Wurm’s greatest claim to fame is that he was the first to recognise the existence of the Trans New Guinea Phylum, a genetically related group of some 400–500 non-Austronesian languages stretching right across the New Guinea Highlands. The details and formal proofs establishing this phylum have occupied Wurm’s students and successors in recent years.

Two other achievements have had a major impact on the field of linguistics. The first was the founding by Stephen Wurm of Pacific Linguistics, a major publishing series for grammars and dictionaries of languages of the Asia- Pacific region. Founded in 1962, Pacific Linguistics is recognised as an institution without peer in the field. Many regard this as Stephen’s greatest single achievement. However, Wurm’s vision and drive also turned to the production of linguistic atlases in the 1970s. The first to appear was his Language Atlas of the Pacific Area, in two volumes (1981, 1983), published with the financial support of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Japan Academy. This was followed by the Language Atlas of China (1988, 1991), supported by the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A third, even larger atlas appeared in 1995, the Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, with Peter Mühlhäusler and Darrell Tryon as co-editors. These three atlases, and a number of smaller ones brought great renown to both Stephen Wurm and the department he headed for 40 years.

Stephen Wurm was truly exceptional, perhaps one of the greatest polyglots in world history, with a working command of some 50 languages, and a complete mastery of at least 20, from all the major language families. His abilities have passed into the realm of legend. For his academic friends and colleagues, however, Stephen will be remembered not only for his linguistic prowess, his boundless drive and energy, but also for his warmth and vision, and for the loyalty and dedication he engendered in his research team. For Stephen Wurm quickly established himself as the father figure in Asia-Pacific linguistics from the time he entered the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU.

* Originally published in Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Annual Report 2001.

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Citation details

Darrell Tryon, 'Wurm, Istvan Adolphe (Stephen) (1922–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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