Both his parents were multilingual and Wurm showed an interest in languages from an early age. Attending school in Vienna and travelling to all parts of Europe during his childhood, Wurm spoke roughly nine languages by the time he reached adulthood, a giftr he inherited from his father, who spoke 17. Wurm went on to master upwards of 50 languages.
Wurm grew up stateless, unable to take the nationality of either parent or of his country of residence, Austria. This enabled him to avoid military service and attend university. He studied Turkic languages at the Oriental Institute in Vienna, receiving his doctorate in linguistics and social anthropology in 1944 for a dissertation on Uzbek.
In 1946 he married fellow student Helene (Helen) Maria Groeger, a specialist in African ethnography. He taught Altaic linguistics at the University of Vienna until 1951.
After reading some works by S. H. Ray, Wurm became interested in Papuan languages and began a correspondence with the Revd Dr Arthur Capell, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Sydney. Wurm began teaching himself Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu from books and took up a position in London. In 1954 the Wurms moved to Australia, where Capell had organised for Wurm a post in the Anthropology Department at the University of Sydney. In 1957 the Wurms moved to Canberra where Stephen took up a post as Senior Fellow within the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS, now Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs) at the new Australian National University (ANU). That same year the Wurms received Australian citizenship. From this time on the main focus of Wurm's research was the study of the languages of New Guinea, although he also carried out research on a number of Australian Aboriginal languages. At the Australian National University he was Professor of Linguistics from 1968 to 1987. In tribute to the scholarship of the man, the journal Oceanic Linguistics titled an article on Wurm "Linguist Extraordinaire".
Publications and collections of work
- Wurm, Stephen (1975). New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study: Papuan languages and the New Guinea linguistic scene. Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.
- Wurm, Stephen (1972). Languages of Australia and Tasmania. Mouton.
- Wurm, Stephen (2001). Atlas of the world's languages in danger of disappearing. UNESCO. ISBN 978-92-3-103798-6.
- Kite, Suzanne; Wurm, Stephen (2004). The Duungidjawu Language of the Southeast Queensland: Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 978-0-85883-550-4.
- Wurm, Stephen; Mühlhäusler, Peter; Tryon, Darrell (1996). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas: Vol I: Maps. Vol II: Texts. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-081972-4.