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  • Stephen Wurm, 1922-2001:Linguist Extraordinaire
  • Andrew Pawley

Stephen Wurm died on October 24, 2001, aged 79.1 He was one of a handful of scholars who shaped the direction of linguistic research in the Pacific in the decades after World War II. He was a gifted fieldworker and prolific writer, with more than 300 publications to his name.2 But above all he was an outstanding academic entrepreneur who helped to put Pacific linguistics "on the map" in three distinct senses.

First, he established a vigorous program of research at the Australian National University, where he was the first linguist appointed (in 1957, within the then Department of Anthropology and Sociology), and the foundation Professor of Linguistics in the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS) from 1968 to 1987. As the main area of research for RSPacS linguistics during his tenure, Wurm chose the languages of Melanesia, and especially the non-Austronesian (or "Papuan") languages, at that time very poorly documented. The academic staff he recruited had to have two crucial qualities: being a specialist in a certain part or parts of this region and being an indefatigable fieldworker. Second, in the early 1960s, he set up a publishing organization (known from 1966 as "Pacific Linguistics") as an outlet for monographs and symposia on indigenous languages of Australia, the Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia, with himself as general editor. Some 500 volumes have now appeared under its imprint. Third, in the later stages of his career, he became the greatest linguistic cartographer of all. The language atlases he designed contained technically innovative multicolored maps accompanied by texts or in some cases, extended essays. His first atlas (coedited with Shirō Hattori) was the two-volume Language Atlas of the Pacific Area (1981-83). He went on to be the mastermind behind four other linguistic atlases, including the two-volume Linguistic Atlas of China and the three-volume, 1,600-page Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas. [End Page 1]

Wurm was lucky to arrive in the right place at the right time-in the 1950s and 1960s the Australian National University (ANU) was a land of milk and honey for scholars, able to generously fund new research programs, and there were linguistic frontiers crying out to be explored. But his achievements were made possible by a rare combination of qualities. He was blessed with prodigious energy, a superb memory, and a quick and imaginative mind. He was a talented and tireless organizer and networker. He had plenty of self-confidence and chutzpah, without being aggressive-in fact he intensely disliked confrontations, preferring to achieve his goals by gentle persuasion. And he was a supportive boss who inspired loyalty in his staff.

While there can be no doubt about Stephen's organizational genius, assessment of his rank as a scholar is a more complex matter. Paradoxically, some of the qualities that made him such an effective linguistic entrepreneur proved to be limiting factors in his scholarship. Nevertheless, he wrote many influential papers and books, his most important contributions being in Papuan linguistics.

Early Years.

Stephen was born in Budapest on August 19, 1922, the second child of Adolph Wurm and Anna Navroczky. He was christened Istvan Adolphe Wurm and brought up mainly in Vienna and Hungary. Although his father-director-general of a banking and insurance company-died before he was born, the Wurms were comfortably off. Stephen and his older sister had a rather privileged childhood that included nannies and travel to all parts of Europe. He attended the Real-Gymnasium in Vienna. Stephen was interested in languages even as a child and, by the time he had grown up, was fluent in about nine languages. He was a genuine rapid language learner, and before he was 40, was fluent in five of the Germanic languages, five of the Romance languages, three Slavic languages, in Arabic, Swahili, Turkish, Uzbek, Mongol, Mandarin, Tok Pisin, and Police Motu, and could get by in perhaps 30 other languages-over 50 in all. He no doubt inherited this aptitude from his parents. His father, whose first language was German, is said to have spoken 17 languages, and...