Dr. Robert Leonard, professor of Comparative Literature, Languages, and Linguistics, is an expert in forensic linguistics, the application of linguistic theory to the analysis of language evidence. Prior to his academic career, Leonard was a member of the rock band Sha Na Na and performed at Woodstock.
Leonard founded and directs the graduate program in "Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics" at Hofstra University, where he is Professor of Linguistics.He previously taught at Columbia. The New Yorker wrote that Leonard “has emerged as one of the foremost language detectives in the country”, and jocularly termed him “a Sam Spade of semantics.” Newsday characterized him as “Professor Henry Higgins meets Sherlock Holmes.” Leonard’s forensic linguistic consulting clients have included the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force, the FBI, Federal Public Defenders offices, and the Prime Minister of Canada.
Leonard was recruited by the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI to train its agents in forensic linguistic analysis at Quantico, and he has trained British law enforcement units in London. He was Apple's linguist in its civil trademark cases against both Microsoft and Amazon. Salon pointed out that Leonard came from quite a different former career path: “’I like to say I’m one of the very few people in the world who have worked with the FBI and the Grateful Dead,’ quips Leonard, who has trained FBI agents in how to analyze language for clues in solving crimes.”
Leonard serves as a member of the editorial board of the Oxford University Press series Language and the Law.
Industry Expertise (2)
Areas of Expertise (5)
Woodstock music festival
Language and the Law
Linguistics and Threat Assessment
1960s rock n roll
Director of Hofstra's MA in Forensic Linguistics (professional)
Launched in 2010, Hofstra's MA in Forensic Linguistics was the first program of its kind in the United States. The study of forensic linguistics – the examination of language and the law – is increasingly being used as a tool of legal professionals, law enforcement, and the intelligence community. The only other forensic linguistics programs are in the U.K. and Spain.
Columbia University: Ph.D., Linguistics 1982
Columbia University: M.A. 1973
Columbia University: M.Ph. 1973
Columbia University: B.A. 1970
- Leonard has been qualified as a Forensic Expert Witness in Linguistics and Language in a number of state and Federal courts. As a forensic linguist, Leonard has provided expert opinions to clients that include Apple, Inc., the Prime Minister of Canada, th
Media Appearances (12)
Melania Trump speech: The odds of a word match
"The passages (in Melania Trump's speech) are simply too long to have occurred by chance," said Robert Leonard, a professor of forensic linguistics at Hofstra University. "Sure, it's possible. But which is the better hypothesis — that they were copied or not?"...
How did computers uncover J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym?
Robert Leonard, who heads the forensic linguistics program at Hofstra University, has also made a career out of determining authorship. Certified to serve as an expert witness in 13 states, he has presented evidence in cases such as that of Christopher Coleman, who was arrested in 2009 for murdering his family in Waterloo, Illinois. Leonard testified that Coleman’s writing style matched threats spray-painted at his family’s home (photo, left). Coleman was convicted and is serving a life sentence...
No way! Way! Nonsense comments serve a purpose
“The utility of such phrases is very predictable,” said Robert Leonard, linguistics professor. “Dialogue is highly orchestrated. We think we open our mouths and words come out, but linguists have been studying conversation for 40 or 50 years, and for conversation to even be recognizable, it has to be orchestrated,” he said. People take turns talking during conversation, Mr. Leonard added. While one takes the floor, others show proof that they are listening. So consider this from Mr. Leonard the next time you report an event to somebody and they ask: “Are you serious?”...
Words on trial
The New Yorker
These days, the word “forensic” conjures an image of a technician on a “C.S.I.” episode who delicately retrieves a single hair or a chip of paint from a crime scene, surmises the unlikeliest facts, and presents them to the authorities as incontrovertible evidence. If “forensic linguist” brings to mind a verbal specialist who plucks slivers of meaning from old letters and segments of audiotape before announcing that the perpetrator is, say, a middle-aged insurance salesman from Philadelphia, that’s not far from the truth. In the Coleman case, Leonard, the head of the linguistics program at Hofstra University, on Long Island, was punctilious in his presentation. Relying largely on word choice and spelling, he suggested that the same person had written the threatening e-mails and sprayed the graffiti, and that those specimens bore similarities to Coleman’s prose style...
Prosecutors say Coleman jurors should read the writing on the wall
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Robert Leonard, a linguistics professor at Hofstra University, testified Tuesday that there are similarities between the threats and the wall writings. Both used the phrases "I'm always watching" and "I saw you leave." And he said they had similarities to Coleman's known writing...
New York Today: Hold the Ziti
The New York Times print
What is it about bribery that makes politicians hungry? Testimony in the federal graft trial of Joseph Percoco, a close adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, hung briefly on the word “ziti,” which the star witness said was how Mr. Percoco referred to bribes. Last month, in the trial of the mayor of Allentown, Pa., the foodstuff — or was it a payoff? — in question was “meatballs.” The former mayor of Trenton called his illicit cash “pizza,” while a Maryland state senator craved “lollipops,” at $1,000 a pop, prosecutors said. In Chicago, politicians were caught on tape discussing the old standbys “lettuce” and “Cheddar.” Food makes sense as a cover word for money, said Robert A. Leonard, head of the forensic linguistics program at Hofstra University: Both are desirable, and food often sounds natural in regular conversation. “The best code words are language that seem to mean something totally different than what it really means, but seems to fit into the context,” said Mr. Leonard, who testifies as an expert language witness in criminal cases. “Food is good because it’s quotidian.”
Language detectives make the web less anonymous
CBS News online
"Take dem bullets out the house," the text message read. The text was allegedly sent by Rickey Cummings, a 23-year-old in Waco, Texas. In 2012, Cummings, a suspected Bloods gang member, was sentenced to death for murder in the 2011 shooting deaths of two men. The text, sent one day after the murders, was used as incriminating evidence. Yet in July 2014, Cummings' lawyers, who believed Cummings hadn't written the text and were hoping to get a new trial, sought the opinion of forensic linguist Robert Leonard. Leonard is one of a growing field of experts who analyze language in criminal investigations to identify a message's author. Leonard examined six anomalous text messages sent from Cummings' phone in the days following the murders. By comparing those texts with Cummings' known writing style, Leonard concluded the text "take dem bullets out the house" was not consistent with that writing style. The implication? Cummings may not have written the text that helped lead to his conviction.
Season 11, Ep 30: A Tight Leash
Forensic Files tv
How did the stalker obtain the security system code for his victim's home? How did he steal her personal photographs? Police needed answers, and they found them in the most unlikely of places: the letters he wrote to frighten the victim and taunt those trying to protect her. (Dr. Leonard comes in at 14:00 minutes into the episode) Originally aired as Season 11, Episode 30.
‘The sleeper cells have awoken’: Trump and aides shaken by ‘resistance’ op-ed
The Washington Post print
Dr. Rob Leonard, director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics, was quoted in The Washington Post about how forensic linguistics may help identify the author of the unsigned The New York Times op-ed who claimed to be part of a secret “resistance” inside the White House. “We take the questioned document and compare it to known exemplars,” said Dr. Leonard, a linguist at Hofstra University who is often retained by defendants and prosecutors in criminal cases involving threats, plagiarism and libel. He also noted that “a problem with public people is that a lot of their published work is edited, so it’s like mixing fingerprints or DNA. You don’t always know who the real author is.”
Did Vice President Mike Pence Pen NY Times Op-Ed?
Inside Edition tv
It’s the biggest secret since Watergate’s “Deep Throat.” Many are questioning who inside the White House wrote a scathing op-ed for the New York Times. The story ran Wednesday and was written by an anonymous individual who claims to be working for the president. “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” was the title of the story. There are tantalizing clues in the piece as to whom it might be.
Hofstra professor, former Sha Na Na member, talks Woodstock
Rob Leonard is director of the forensic linguistics program at Hofstra University. But he was also a member of the group Sha Na Na. On July 17, Leonard talked about performing at Woodstock, as the 50th anniversary of the landmark concert approaches.
A-HED They Played on the Main Stage at Woodstock 50 Years Ago—No, Really
The Wall Street Journal print
August 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and Dr. Rob Leonard, director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics, was there – not in the audience, but onstage performing as lead singer for the group Sha Na Na. In fact, it was Dr. Leonard’s rock n’ roll experience that eventually inspired him to enter the world of forensic linguistics: while reviewing the group’s contract, he realized they were not receiving all the money that was legally owed them! The Wall Street Journal interviewed Dr. Leonard about his experience performing at Woodstock.
Event Appearances (1)
The Language Detective - http://www.mwany.org/2015/05/the-language-detective-comes-to-mwa-ny/
Mystery Writers of America (NY chapter) meeting Salmagundi Club in Manhattan
Sample Talks (1)
Words on Trial: Forensic Linguistics in Criminal, Civil and Intelligence Investigations
2015 lectures at University of Virginia Columbia University and Stony Brook University