It is language that most clearly separates humans from all other species on the planet. Human affairs revolve around language. Linguistics—the systematic study of language—enables students to understand the inner workings of this most special human tool: who and why communication happens, or fails to happen; how language is used to support people in groups; how the structure of language is the structure of human intelligence. Linguistics has many subfields, including the history and relationship among languages; the study of meaning, grammar, and context; the sound patterns of language; the interplay between language and society; the role of language and cognition in human evolution; the importance of language in interpersonal and intergroup communication; and the significance of linguistic analysis in law.
Human affairs revolve around language. Linguistics enables students to understand the inner workings of this most special human tool: how and why communication happens or fails to happen, how language creates solidarity and division among groups, how the structure of language is the structure of human intelligence. Hofstra is unique – the only university in the Americas where students can pursue a graduate degree in Forensic Linguistics. Undergrads may take a course that explores this field, and qualified undergraduate students may take graduate courses in Forensic Linguistics during their senior year, or may seek admission into the combined BA/MA in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics.
Forensic Linguistics Institute
The Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis at Hofstra University
(successor to the Forensic Linguistics Project)
The Forensic Linguistic Project, founded in 2004, merged in 2014 with the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis.
The Institute is the current umbrella entity serving as the research, internship, and special projects arm of the Programs in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University.
Robert Leonard, Co-director of the Institute
James Fitzgerald, Co-director of the Institute
Tammy Gales, Director of Research
To use the scientific analysis of language to advance the cause of justice in the application of the law, and to promote the study of forensic linguistics.
Linguistics is the science of language analysis. Language is key in the judicial system of the U.S. and many other nations. Through language we promulgate laws, issue subpoenas and warrants, question suspects, give testimony, write contracts, claim and deny. Law Enforcement interviews, interrogates, attempts to convince suspects to confess, and collects pretext call and wire-tap conversations as evidence. Attorneys use language to write briefs, make opening and closing arguments, question and cross-examine witnesses. Judges issue orders, write decisions, and charge juries. Just as biology and physics play crucial roles in the interpretation of forensic medical data, linguistics enables a deeper understanding of forensic language phenomena.
The Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis conducts original research, accepts outside assignments, and provides internship opportunities for graduate students at Hofstra.
The Institute supervises two types of internships.
- As of 2014, the Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project began formally accepting cases through the offices of Eric M. Freedman, the Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights at Hofstra.
Forensic linguistic interns, supervised by Dr. Leonard, work with Law School interns, supervised by Professor Freedman, in analyzing the evidence and appeal possibilities in capital cases in which language evidence—typically a recorded conversation, an interrogation, or a confession—played a crucial role in a defendant’s conviction and death sentence. Professor Freedman and Dr. Leonard are assisted by attorney Regina Anzalone Kurz, Esq., a Guest Lecturer in the department and liaison between the Forensic Linguistic and Law School interns.
- The Institute also accepts a small number of pro bono cases that do not fit the death penalty parameter required by the Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project. Forensic linguistic interns assist Dr. Leonard in the analysis of language evidence in these cases, which, for example, might include cases of unknown authorship, trademark, and language crimes such as perjury and solicitation to murder.
The Institute administers research in the areas of discourse analysis and corpus linguistics.
In conjunction with graduate courses taught at Hofstra, students, working under the supervision of Dr. Gales, utilize authentic, that is, actually occurring, language data for such purposes as analyzing the language of false vs. true confessions and creating and analyzing comparison corpora for authorship cases.
Dr. Robert Leonard, director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics, is one of the world’s leading experts in this growing field of study that is increasingly being used by legal professionals, law enforcement, and the intelligence community in the U.S. and around the world.
Robert Leonard is "one of the foremost language detectives in the country" says The New Yorker Magazine
Dr. Robert Leonard is Professor of Linguistics, Director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis, and of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra. He heads the innovative Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project. A Fulbright Fellow for his doctoral work at Columbia University, Leonard has consulted to the FBI and police, counter-terrorism, and intelligence agencies throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., as well as many defense teams. Other clients include Apple, Inc., Facebook, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force. Leonard’s testimony has been pivotal in investigating and prosecuting several high profile cases, including the JonBenet Ramsey murder, death threats to judges and U.S. Congress members, and the triple homicide of the Coleman family in Illinois.
Hofstra University offers a Master of Arts degree in Linguistics with specialization in the cutting-edge science of forensic linguistics—the first program of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Professor Robert Leonard is widely credited for growing and promoting this field of study in the U.S. and abroad.
In addition to heading Hofstra's Forensic Linguistics Institute and Linguistics Programs, Dr. Leonard teaches Swahili, the language of his doctoral dissertation research. A favorite among students, Dr. Leonard was voted by graduating seniors as “Teacher of the Year” in Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for 2008-09. He was chosen by the University to give the Distinguished Faculty Lecture in 2014.
In an interview, Dr. Leonard said, “I think the most important thing you learn in forensic linguistics and in any liberal art is how to learn. You are introduced to a new field, a new set of variables, and are able to combine that with your own information and own world view to solve problems.”
He has trained the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico and special units in the U.K. and Canada. He has worked as Apple’s linguist and consulted to the Prime Minister of Canada, the New York State Protective Services, and given talks around the world.
Dr. Leonard has served as a forensic linguistics consultant for an array of popular media, and in many different forms. Leonard collaborated with author Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist and producer of the TV series Bones (based on her life) to create a forensic linguistics plotline and create a character, Rob Potter, based on Leonard himself in her bestseller Bones to Ashes. (It reached number 3 on the New York Times “Hardcover Fiction” list). Leonard has advised the TV show Elementary, and many other writers, devising forensic linguistic cases and solutions in their work. Leonard himself is currently working on a series of young adult forensic linguistics novels under contract to the literary agent who handles the Hunger Games book franchise.
Dr. Leonard has been called on to train intelligence and counterintelligence agents from Quantico to L.A. to London, and he has consulted on a variety of well-known cases:
- He analyzed arson threat letters sent to actors Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel.
- He prepared testimony to bolster the FBI expert in the Melanie McGuire “suitcase” murder trial.
- He consulted in the Brian Hummert trial, analyzing letters sent to authorities following the murder of Hummert’s wife, Charlene, and testified in both of Hummert’s trials. As the New York Times wrote, "His consultation on the murder of Charlene Hummert, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania woman who was strangled in 2004, helped put her killer in prison.”
- He prepared testimony against FBI interrogators in the Alvarez spy case.
- In the much publicized confession of John Karr to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, Dr. Leonard found no evidence of links between Karr’s writing to the note found at the scene of the murder years before. Dr. Leonard’s findings presaged those of the DNA tests which also ruled Karr out as a suspect.
Dr. Leonard’s students have some remarkable opportunities to apply what they are learning in the classroom to real world situations. They work with him on cases through Hofstra University’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis. Internships are also possible with government agencies, think tanks, and law offices, and now with the unique Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project.
In addition to being a leading expert in forensic linguistics, Dr. Leonard has also received much attention for having been a rock star in the 60s and 70s as a founding member of the group Sha Na Na. He opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, (Watch the YouTube video of him performing “Teen Angel” at Woodstock in 1969!) and played with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and John Lennon. Then, as The New York Times wrote, “At age 21, Mr. Leonard walked away from rock fame to pursue his real love: linguistics. Turns out to have been an inspired choice.” Dr. Leonard left the music business for a Fulbright Fellowship and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Rock 'n' roll actually ignited his interest in forensic linguistics: analyzing his group's recording contract, he realized they were not receiving money due them.
Leonard quipped to Slate, “I am one of a very few people in the world—actually, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one—who has worked with both the FBI and the Grateful Dead.” And probably the only Fulbright Fellow who played Woodstock.