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From ST:TNG "The Game", when the crew welcomes back Cadet Wesley Crusher on vacation from the Starfleet Academy:

PICARD: Quomodo tua Latinitas est?
WESLEY: Praestat quam prius.
PICARD: Oppido bonum. Your Latin has improved. 

As Picard would ask, "quid studere latina in Academia?". Why would they bother? Both as far as Latin being a dead language, AND with the Federation having one of them Universal Translator doohikeys.

I'd prefer in-Universe answer, but will take any.

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    If you've had Latin and seen how it helps with other languages, you wouldn't have to ask. – Tango Apr 15 '12 at 18:29
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    @Wikis: Any language that is part of languages that are in current use is not dead. Many parts of words in English come from Latin, so understanding Latin makes it much easier to understand English. For example, "pen" comes from the Latin for "almost" and "insula" comes from the Latin for "island." By putting it together, I get an idea what a peninsula is. Studying Latin is the same in understanding how to add and subtract before multiplying and dividing or using a calculator. It's like knowing how your car works so you can fix it when something goes wrong and there's no help around. – Tango Apr 15 '12 at 19:31
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    @TangoOversway I’ve had five years of Latin at school. I find this is an excellent question. The “benefits” you mention are nothing compared to the benefits I would’ve got from studying any modern Romance language for the same time. I’m not saying that it’s entirely useless – merely severely overrated. – Konrad Rudolph Apr 15 '12 at 21:53
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    @Konrad - maybe you just had lousy teachers. I had two years of Latin (and a lot of independent study, admittedly), and I can read nearly any Romance language in a newspaper - French, Spanish, Italian, even a little Romanian. Surely, I run into false cognates from time to time ("embarazada" in Spanish is the most fun - "a pen that won't leak in your shirt and make you pregnant"), but it's like the difference between studying a particular programming language and learning computer science in general - it's a foundation that can be developed in a specific direction when necessary. – Chris B. Behrens Apr 16 '12 at 15:38
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I don't know that there's an in-Universe answer, however ...

Latin is incredibly useful for being able to comprehend a word's (potential) meaning without having an explicit definition, rather than just transposing words from one language to another, which is the function of the Universal Translator.

Additionally, it helps with critical thinking and analysis to understand how another language conjugates and modifies depending on various scenarios. In this, it would be more of an academic exercise, but not uncommon in today's academia whereby it's often required to have a secondary language as part of one's study.

Furthermore, in the days of a Universal Translator, depending on technology puts you at it's mercy for communication and the lack of skills to operate without it leaves you with a potentially critical vulnerability. I don't think Latin is going to help with extra-plantary languages though.

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    +1, learning a language with roots different from your native one really stretches how you think of communication in general. (English is primarily Germanic, so Latin would count, I believe) – Izkata Apr 15 '12 at 19:08
  • @Izkata English is primarily Germanic; but between the infusion of 11th century French from the Norman conquest and English's aggressive acquisition of loan words adding a lump of Latin I recognized a lot of cognates when I was learning Spanish. While anything is better than nothing, it didn't really stretch my viewpoint much. To really accomplish that objective I think you'd need to go to a more distantly related (completely unrelated?) language. – Dan Neely Apr 16 '12 at 13:19
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    @DanNeely Probably true. Spanish didn't really do it for me either, but I've never touched Latin - using Latin for that purpose is something I've heard from several friends who did take it in school. Apparently it worked for them. (For me, the limited Japanese I've learned is what stretched my mind) – Izkata Apr 16 '12 at 13:52
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TangoOversway commented:

I don't mean with translating at all. I mean in understanding language, including roots, structure, and derivations.

A language is not just a dictionary of words and their meanings. It is a highly complex model of communication with various rules described in grammar, orthography, pronunciation, sentence forming, etc. Now, the thing is that these rules tend to be more different for languages that are less related.

Two related languages may have an almost identical structure and a different vocabulary. Example: Italian and Spanish

Another pair of less related languages will have a different structure, grammar, etc. but at least they will have the same concepts - sentences, gender, numerals, and so on. Example: English and French

Less related languages would have a few quite different concepts. For example, most languages have singular and plural. Slovene has singular, plural and dual.

It's easy to imagine what kinds of differences may occur if we compare two completely unrelated languages. I don't have the knowledge to make the comparison, but I can assume that the list would be quite large for, say, Japanese and Portuguese.

Now, since you mentioned Latin specifically, I'll give one example why would it be useful. A native English speaker without knowledge of any other languages would (probably) have difficulties with noun case system present in some modern languages (e.g. most Slavic languages) since that concept is almost extinct in modern English. On the other hand, someone who had learned Latin wouldn't have too much trouble to figure it out. They would just say Oh, Родительный падеж, that's Genetivus, right And I don't mean just to know intellectually what that is - I mean to understand it, to grok it, if you will.

Understanding foreign concepts is the hardest thing when learning new languages. Now, why would Starfleet officers have to understand various concepts of languages and communication, I wonder? Could it have anything to do with all those first contact situations and the fine details of diplomacy? I would bet that they don't only learn Latin, but also other classical languages from Earth and other Federation planets, at least to some level of knowledge. Wouldn't it be strange if Starfleet trained its officers to attempt to understand alien communication without first training them to understand Earth languages?

Why would they bother? Both as far as Latin being a dead language, AND with the Federation having one of them Universal Translator doohikeys.

Universal Translators do have limitations. Just remember Darmok, and Jalad... at Tanagra.. Actually, the main plot of that episode is about a language with incredibly different concepts - a difference which their Universal Translator was unable to handle.

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    +1 for using "grok" and "Родительный падеж" in the same sentence :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Apr 15 '12 at 21:40
  • "Darmok and Jalad" made for good TV but it's kind of nonsense, scientifically so I don't know if I'd use it as an example. – user1030 Apr 16 '12 at 9:03
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    @JoeWreschnig: Star Trek is generally bad at such things. It is an on screen example that UT can get lost in the translation and that's good enough for me. – Goran Jovic Apr 16 '12 at 9:40
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I think the better question is: Why not?

If we look at the cadets of the Starfleet, every single one seems to be able to do Quantum Math and other fancy stuff. Seeing that, we can assume that the overall IQ has increased over the centuries. As such, teaching languages seems trivial.

As already pointed out, learning different languages helps with bending your mind around communications in general. I also assume that they learn basic "Federation languages", too, like Vulcan. In general I'd assume that the schools and academies work on the basis "we throw everything at the cadets, if 0.1% needs that knowledge, it's worth that" since every single member of Starfleet seems to have a very broad basis of common knowledge.

  • So, what's the usage of Latin to that 0.1%? Invasion of the Roman Empire? That's the gist of my question. Not random "foreign" language but Latin – DVK-on-Ahch-To Apr 15 '12 at 20:25
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    @Maybe invasion of the Romulan Empire. After all they are the "Space Romans" :) – Goran Jovic Apr 15 '12 at 20:43
  • Given all the temporal incursions we have in Star Trek canon, there's no reason why Starfleet officers might not visit Ancient Rome (whether on purpose or not). I may be wrong, but I think that both parties have to have a Universal Translator of sorts for them to work, so they wouldn't work there; though there are plenty of examples in the canon that contradict this (such as the DS9 episode where Quark, Rom, Nog and Odo landed on Earth in 1947). It's never properly explained how the UT works, including altering an alien's lip movements to match the sounds of the words in English. – Wallnut Sep 14 '16 at 11:12
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I'd like to propose a simple answer: Because Latin used to be the international language of intellectuals. So, of course, somebody who's education is a bit more "old school" might first think of using it as a possible fictional intergalactic language. Other's wouldn't make this sort of mistake, as you will see more modern sci-fi shows using hybrids of Chinese and English as their intergalactic language of the future, which is more plausible.

  • I don't think Latin was meant as a lingua franca, just part of a good classical education. – Kevin Apr 17 '12 at 13:10
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Since in the Star Trek universe computers can do pretty much everything, including advanced math and translating, it seems that people tend to study stuff pretty often just for fun. There isn't nearly as much focus on just studying the things that will 'get you ahead' in your career. Every character in Star Trek from TNG onwards seems to have a hobby, often one that would require a lot of study to be good at in our world. Maybe Picard and Crusher both took Latin as a fun elective.

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    Advanced math helps when the computer is down. Latin? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Apr 17 '12 at 13:21
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    @DVK Did you miss the bit where I wrote "just for fun"? – DJClayworth Apr 17 '12 at 13:51

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