Joseph R. Applegate, 78, a professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University and a specialist in the Berber languages of North Africa, died Oct. 18 at the Washington Home hospice. He had pneumonia.
Dr. Applegate's interest in languages -- he knew 13 -- grew after he moved to Philadelphia as a child. He found the exposure to Yiddish and Italian among his classmates new and exciting, forging the basis for his 60-year career.
After completing his doctorate in 1955, he became one of the first black faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then taught Berber languages at the University of California at Los Angeles.
He arrived at Howard in 1966 to teach Romance languages but almost immediately became director of the African studies and research program. He headed the program until 1969, but his time was not without conflicts. Some students, he said, wanted a program that paralleled the burgeoning African-identification movement.
Raised in a home that did not emphasize race, he disliked racial politics in university settings and instead worked at Howard to train Americans and those of African descent to think and research "problems of contemporary Africa."
Dr. Applegate, who retired in 2002, was a former chairman of Howard's faculty senate.
During his career, he trekked to Africa to explore local language and culture. He once traveled with a migratory people called the Tuaregs, also called the "Blue People" for their colorful blue-dyed cloths that protect them from the wind-whipped silicate in the soil. "When the wind blows and the ground glass hits your skin, you could be cut to pieces if you're not wrapped in this blue material," he told an interviewer.
Back in Washington, where he lived, Dr. Applegate struck a refined pose when he wished. Which is to say, he enjoyed Brooks Brothers clothing but liked to wear it long after it had frayed.
Joseph Roy Applegate was born in Wildwood, N.J., a seaside resort community where his parents ran a boarding house often used by black entertainers. He once recalled waking up at night and seeing Duke Ellington test one of his compositions on the piano.
After his family's move to South Philadelphia, he entered Temple University on academic scholarship and studied secondary education and Spanish. Short but athletic, he was a member of the varsity fencing team and became interested in modern dance, even auditioning successfully for Katherine Dunham's troupe during his senior year in 1945.
He abandoned dance for education, a "more stable" choice. He soon found himself faced with discriminatory hiring practices in Philadelphia's schools, which upset him because he "did not accept the classification of race." He talked himself into a high-school teaching job at an all-girls' school but felt that the constant oversight -- to make sure he did nothing improper -- was troubling. It also triggered a lifelong belief in unionization, which he continued at Howard.
After receiving his master's and doctorate degrees in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Applegate became an assistant professor of modern languages at MIT.
There was an established history of Penn linguists participating in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics. He worked on a project studying the mechanical translation of languages, which he said was ultimately deemed unfeasible because "we could not accurately describe the process of translation." He also taught linguistics with such peers as Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle.
There are no immediate survivors.