James A. Fox (Image credit: Katie Cleese)

Linguistic anthropologist James A. Fox, who has taught at Stanford for over 40 years, died on Aug. 7 at his home in Palo Alto from complications of kidney failure. He was 75.

Fox, an associate professor of anthropology at Stanford in the School of Humanities and Sciences, specialized in historical linguistics and the languages of Native Americans. He was known for his curiosity, generosity and engaging teaching methods, according to friends and colleagues.

“As a scholar whose interests and expertise spread across all subfields of the discipline, Jim was able to engage in dialogue with faculty and students whose work encompassed a wide range of topics and theoretical approaches,” said his colleague Sylvia Yanagisako, who is the Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies and professor of anthropology. “His intellectual curiosity, generosity of spirit and personal dignity enhanced the anthropology department. He will be greatly missed.”

Anthropologist, linguist and polyglot

Among Fox’s achievements are his decipherments of ancient Mayan written texts, which became the first pre-Columbian records that scholars could read and understand. He also conducted extensive linguistic fieldwork in Guatemala and Mexico, including a study of Ayapa Zoque, a nearly extinct language spoken by a handful of people in the state of Tabasco in Mexico.

He was also known for his archival and field research on Russenorsk, a mixed Russo-Norwegian language of Northern Norway. His comprehensive field checklist of the items he brought with him on his many trips has been used and appreciated by linguists and anthropologists heading into the field, his colleagues said.

Fox was a dedicated teacher, offering graduate and undergraduate courses in linguistics, anthropology and the history and evolution of language, said John Rickford, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics and the Humanities at Stanford.

“James A. Fox was an accomplished anthropologist, linguist and polyglot who did ground-breaking research on languages in Southern Mexico and the Americas,” said Rickford, who produced a quarterly newsletter with Fox about pidgin languages – two languages blended together to form a simplified, shared vernacular. “I valued Jim for our collaboration, for our guest lectures in each other’s courses, for his invariably genial greeting, and for the sterling model he provided of a long, fruitful and happy family life.”

Fox was fluent in Norwegian, German, Spanish and Quiché Mayan and had studied over 50 other languages. His books include Language and Writing (1983), Negotiation in Russenorsk (1983) and Hieroglyphic Evidence for the Languages of the Classic Maya (1984).

Avid traveler, dedicated to faith and family

At Stanford, Fox has led nearly six dozen trips to locations around the world, including Guatemala, Easter Island and Norway, through the Stanford Alumni Association’s Travel Study Program. He received the 2016 Richard W. Lyman Award, which recognizes faculty for their “extraordinary service” to the alumni association programs.

Fox was born in Spokane, Washington, and grew up in Hardin, Montana. Fox earned his Bachelor of Arts in German from Brigham Young University in 1969. He got a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1970. He earned another master’s and his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1974 and in 1978.

Fox joined Stanford in 1974 and continued working as faculty until the end of his life. He directed the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies from 2001 to 2004, and he was a resident fellow in Arroyo and Rinconada in Wilbur Hall from 1975 to 1980, then in Cedro and Toyon from 1990 to 1994.

“Jim was a wonderful, witty person,” his wife Margaret Fox said. “He was always learning something new and he had an incredible memory. Once he learned something, he didn’t forget it.”

Locally, Fox was involved in the surrounding community of Palo Alto through his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He served the church in many roles over the years, including as counselor in the Stanford and Palo Alto First Wards, bishop of the Redwood City Spanish-speaking ward, Scoutmaster, seminary teacher, family history consultant and ordinance worker at the Oakland Temple.

Fox is survived by his wife, Margaret Fox, who works in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and their six children, Hugh, Sharman, John, Rachel, Suzie and Kristine, as well as 13 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel at 3865 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, California, on Wednesday, Aug. 14, at noon followed by burial at Fairview Cemetery in Hardin, Montana, on Monday, Aug. 19, at 1 p.m.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu