From Holding the Mic to Theory of Mind: Rob Leonard’s Love of Language

Talk about a unique career path! From performing at Woodstock before Jimi Hendrix, with his band Sha Na Na, to now being a Forensic Linguist, testifying for infamous court cases, one theme runs throughout the life journey of our guest Rob Leonard; his love of language.

Rob Leonard started his unique career as a band member of Sha Na Na, one of only 32 bands who played at Woodstock in August of 1969. He played at the request of Jimi Hendrix and was the last band to go on to perform before Jimi went on to play one of his most memorable performances; the unforgettable rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

Sha Na Na shot to fame when Rob was studying for his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. Since his commitment to the band’s rehearsals and performances was so time consuming, Rob chose to study the only language that had classes available on Saturdays: East African Bantu (also known as Swahili). So after graduating, and leaving the band, he spent 7 years in East Africa carrying out socio linguistic fieldwork, and subsequently earning his PhD.

Rob now practices as a forensic linguistics expert, analyzing the use of spoken and written language in a legal arena.  He worked on the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey by analyzing the ransom note and testifying that it had not been written by the man who falsely confessed to her murder. Not only has he worked to solve cases in the US with the FBI, but he’s also worked with Canada, and UK, law enforcement agencies as well. And he’s worked on big corporate cases between Microsoft and Apple by carefully analyzing the way emails were written.

© 2021 Behavioral Grooves

Quotes From Our Conversation with Rob Leonard

(24:41) we can sort of use another metaphor, lift up the cover of the language and see what’s going on underneath. And we can infer that there are certain patterns happening here that we then test for and we find

(26:09) “Most of the information that is transmitted in a conversation does not come from the words that a speaker says, they come from the mind of the listener.”

Topics we Discuss with Rob Leonard

(4:48) Speed Round

(6:08) Can you determine someone’s innocence from the way they speak?

(8:40) What is forensic linguistics?

(11:57) Non-random distribution of language

(13:21) Rob’s journey into learning East African Bantu

(19:18) How Rob found the career path into linguistics

(25:55) Theory of Mind

(34:12) Rob’s stories from playing at Woodstock

(47:40) Grooving Session about Rob

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