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Wolfgang U. Dressler

Wolfgang U. Dressler (born 22 December 1939) is an Austrian professor of linguistics[1] at the University of Vienna. Dressler is an eminent scholar who has contributed to various fields of linguistics, especially phonology, morphology, text linguistics, clinical linguistics and child language development. He is one of the most important representatives of the 'naturalness theory'.



After studying linguistics and classical philology in Vienna (1957 1962), Dressler spent time in Rome and Paris, works both at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Linguistics of the University of Vienna, finishing his habilitation in 1968. In 1970, he went to the USA working as associate professor and returned to Vienna in 1971, when he was appointed professor for general and applied linguistics at the University of Vienna. Since then, Dressler is based there, while still travelling and teaching at other universities all the time.


Dressler has authored more than 400 publications, some of which were groundbreaking for various sub-disciplines of linguistics. To name a few, the following selection of some of his monographs may give some insight:

  • Dressler, W.U. & R. de Beaugrande 1981: Introduction to Text Linguistics. London, Longman 1981. Einf hrung in die Textlinguistik. T bingen, Niemeyer.
  • Dressler, W.U. 1985: Morphonology. Ann Arbor, Karoma Press.
  • Dressler, W.U. & W. Mayerthaler, O. Panagl, W.U. Wurzel 1988: Leitmotifs in Natural Morphology. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
  • Dressler, W.U. & Lavinia Merlini Barbaresi 1994: Morphopragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 1994.

Linguistic research

In the beginning of his career, Dressler worked on Indo-European topics. After 1969, he starts to publish on text linguistics. After a few publications within the then new framework of generative grammar, he permanently turned away from this model and has become a very profound critic with a strong science-theoretical and semiotic background.

At the same time, Dressler worked on Breton language, from a phonological, text linguistic and sociolinguistic perspective ('language death'). At that time also, morphology, phonology and morphonology were in the focus of his interest. Since 1972, what is later called 'sociophonology' has been developed, first as 'fast speech rules', later in a refined model on 'casual speech' and competing phonological processes and rules.

From 1973 onwards, in search of 'external evidence' for linguistic theoretical assumptions (as opposed to generative models, but as an important science-theoretical background for theoretical arguments), Dressler has got interested in the disturbed speech of aphasia. Similarly, he has started to work with psychologists on a model of psychological '(de)activation' for phonological processes and, with his background in IE studies, he compares historical evidence with his phonological theory, concluding about rules, processes and the boundaries of phonological theory towards morpho(no)logy.

In his contributions about morphology, Dressler establishes, together with Wurzel and Panagl, a subtheory of 'Natural Morphology' which bases itself on the establishment of more or less "natural" operations on the universal, typological, or language-specific levels, respectively. Furthermore, in a monograph on morphonology, he proves morphonology to be a subtype of morphology, contrary to contemporary claims in generative phonology of its being treated as a phonological phenomenon. Furthermore, Dressler proposed a model of morphological operations between lexical and grammatical functions, thereby establishing a gradual scale between derivational and inflectional processes. This theory explains why derivational rules apply before inflectional rules, and why 'unprototypical' derivation such as diminutive and 'unprototypical' inflections such as plural formation sometimes get mixed in the middle, cf. German "Kind-er-chen" (child-PL-DIM) -- where derivation occurs after inflection.

For Dressler, language phenomena interact at different levels of linguistic organisation with more or less "natural" operations or states which might, however, lead to competition between them, so that an "ideal" state of the system is unliekly to be reached -- which in turn might explain the usual grammaticalization channels in language change and language use. Therefore, Dressler coined the term 'polycentristic theory' of word formation (1977), then (1983) 'polycentristic language theory.'

Due to his science-theoretical interests, Dressler introduced a semiotic model (following Charles Sanders Peirce) into linguistic theory. This 'semiotic model' reappears in Dressler's publications time and again as prerequisite for theoretical assumptions in various fields.

Dressler finally adopted the model of 'Natural Phonology' as developed by David Stampe and Patricia Donegan, but refined it with his semiotic science-theoretical considerations. This might appear as an unnecessary addition, but in fact firmly puts the model on a very solid meta-theory. Following this new trend, together with Willi Mayerthaler, Oswald Panagl and Wolfgang U. Wurzel, Dressler coined the term 'Natural Morphology' for their way to look at morphological processes. Here again, a semiotic foundation of the model strongly influences his explanations, much more than with the other authors.

Since Dressler's model has found universal acclaim, he has to be named a typologist. Both in phonology and morphology, he sees the common ground of languages in more general principles of how signs can be used (= semiotics).

Then, Dressler turned towards morphopragmatics, which is the pragmatic uses of morphological elements. He investigated the uses of diminutives and similar phenomena, again creatively combining formal and semantic (or pragmatic) aspects in innovative ways.

Finally, Dressler has developed a new model of language development which, in morphology, is called the model of pre- and proto-morphology. Dressler assumes that language is self-organising in the child, thereby passing through a stage 'before' morphology and then through a stage of a very simple morphology, until finally the child learns to adapt to the adult target model of grammar. In other words, a child does neither inherit nor learn a grammatical function, but is able to gradually derive the full morphological meaning from fewer and more concrete functions which are developed and discovered first.

As this ('short') enumeration of his research interests show, Dressler is one of the most eminent linguistic scholars of the 20th century, as far as theory-building is concerned. From a theoretical viewpoint, Dressler's work is close to functionalist and cognitive models of language.


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