It is believed that linguist Joseph Roye Applegate spoke as at least 13 languages and had reading knowledge of several others. He was born to parents who operated a boarding house in Wildwood, New Jersey on December 4, 1925. When his family moved to Philadelphia he interacted with Yiddish and Italian schoolmates and thus developed a fascination with languages. Applegate entered Temple University in 1941 where he made the varsity fencing team and did well in modern dance. Work interrupted his studies but he persisted and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics at Temple in 1955. Between 1946 and 1955 Applegate taught Spanish and English in vocational schools and high schools in Philadelphia and was active in teacher unionization.
Upon completing his doctorate he was hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to assist in its modern languages department’s efforts to adapt electronic methods of language translation. In 1956 he was appointed assistant professor in the department teaching German, English to foreign students, and in 1959 was appointed director of MIT’s new language laboratory.
Applegate did not gain tenure as MIT’s first black faculty member, instead, in 1960 he moved on to the University of California at Los Angeles to teach Berber languages for six years. He then moved to Howard University in 1966 where he became director of the African Studies and Research Program, taught in the Romance languages and African Studies departments, and was responsible for launching the nation’s first Ph.D. program in African Studies. He also served as chairman of the university’s Faculty Senate. Applegate was a consultant to the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Geographic Society. One of his best known works is a book chapter, “A Grammar of Shilha: The Berber Languages,” which appeared in Current Trends in Linguistics in 1970. He also published a 71-page monograph on the language of the Moroccan Berbers titled An Outline of the Structure of Shilha (New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1958). Following his retirement in 2002, Applegate died of pneumonia on October 18, 2003 at the Washington Home hospice.