In the video below, Data refers to the French language as "obscure". Picard objects to this and Data is about to make a remark as to why the French language was indeed obscure. Is there any indication given in any other materials as to why Data considered French to be an obscure language?

Jean-Luc Picard insulted by Data - YouTube

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    Maybe he's just stating the obvious. He often does that.
    – Einer
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 10:53
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    French is an offshoot of Vulgar Latin. Knowing the first season of TNG, one of the monkeys in the writing staff confused the words 'vulgar' and 'obscure,' and also wasn't smart enough to figure out that "Vulgar," in linguistic terms, has a specific meaning that is different from the common usage. Obviously offending every black person in the world wasn't enough for "Code of Honor;" it felt the need to piss off the French, Belgians, Swiss, Canadians, and half the Polynesians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners as well. Commented May 13, 2014 at 11:46
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    @JamesSheridan: As a Canadian, I believe you may be overthinking this. :-) It might simply be like Futurama, where French is considered an "incomprehensible dead language": futurama.wikia.com/wiki/Universal_Translator Commented May 13, 2014 at 13:58
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit: You can't compare those two series. One is a ground-breaking, award-winning, genre-shifting piece of sci-fi genius. The other is Star Trek. Commented May 13, 2014 at 14:25
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    In fact, French is so obscure in the Star Trek universe that the automatic translators can't even translate when Picard says "merde".
    – Mr Lister
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 20:53

6 Answers 6


I keep going back to the Writers Guide again and again, as well as in this case. The description of Jean-Luc Picard states among other things:

Born in Paris, France, Picard betrays a gallic accent only when deep emotions are triggered. Otherwise, since ethnic accents are no longer common, he carries only a touch of French phrasing in his speech. In discussions with friends, he pretends to believe that France represents "the only true civilization" to appear on Earth -- and that it delights him when a witty companion wants to prove the same for England, Italy or China. He is definitely a 'romantic' and sincerely believes in concepts like honor and duty although on issues that affect the safety if his crew and starship he can be completely pragmatic and tough as hell.

"Federation Standard" is the common tongue for Starfleet and Data, who not only know this and French but also a huge range of other languages, presumably classify languages with fewer then N users to be obscure. If we take the first definition of obscure from Merriam Webster:

  1. not well-known : not known to most people

it is fair to assume this is a direct cold fact way of presenting it from Data's fact-ridden way of thinking.

When it comes to the particular clip it is clear that they intended it to be a humorous awkward moment precisely because of Picards love of France. This is further underlined by the reaction of the crew. A situation we all know; when someone unknowingly is stepping on someone else's toes ;)

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    Any language could be described as "obscure" if it is only spoken by a subset of the sentient population of a single planet in the Federation. Non-obscure languages are spoken on multiple planets. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 10:50

This isn't a great answer, but it's fairly heavily hinted throughout the "modern" series (TNG, DS9, Voyager) that the official language of the Earth is standardized English, and that other languages are basically of hobbyist and research type use only, the way Latin is today. There is also more than one reference of inferior cultures that don't have a common language, and that is one indicator of them being inferior.

As for why French was used specifically, it may be for a light comedic moment with Picard. Or for the reasons of being one of the most widely spoken languages (geographically) in the world, mainly competing with English for geographic spread.

French is also the language other than English that business is conducted in at the UN. Other languages were added as additional working languages later. Some committees and offices in the UN only use English and French to this day (Per Wikipedia). Also CERN requires most staff to speak, write, and read both.


While Picard states that French was the dominate international language, it has been in decline as English has become the defacto standard since World War 2. Wikipedia

Once the key international language in Europe, being the language of diplomacy from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, French lost most of its international significance to English in the 20th century, especially after World War II, with the rise of the United States as a dominant global superpower. A watershed was when the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, was written in both French and English. A small but increasing number of large multinational firms headquartered in France are using English as their working language even in their French operations, and to gain international recognition, French scientists often publish their work in English.

With the center of Starfleet being located in San Francisco, you can imagine it has an English-centric influence on the planet. Additionally, which Africa has been growing in use of French in the last few decades, we don't know what affect World War 3 and the forming of the African Confederation (or the United States of Africa) had on their continued use of French.

Based on Data's statement, we can assume that by the 24th century, French has become a niche language.

  • Actually there's quite a lot of French used in TNG, DS9 and voyager.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 17:02

Data frequently "gets it wrong" when repeating quotes and imitating human behaviour.

Throughout The Next Generation TV series and movies, Data imitates examples of human behaviour that he has observed. He often misunderstands the original context of these behaviours, making his reenactments misguided and inappropriate.


  • Growing a beard similar to Riker's, to project authority and thoughtfulness ("The Schizoid Man", TNG 2x06).

  • Learning to tap dance (at times very robotically) in preparation for ballroom dancing at a wedding ("Data's Day", TNG 4x11).

  • Provoking a lovers' quarrel with his girlfriend Jenna D'Sora, in an attempt to strengthen their romantic relationship ("In Theory", TNG 4x25).

  • Talking about the weather to Picard, because humans use small talk to fill awkward moments ("Starship Mine", TNG 6x18).

  • Pushing Dr. Crusher off of a sailing ship, because the crew laughed when Riker made Worf fall into the ocean (Star Trek Generations).

  • Engaging in "girl talk" with Worf, in imitation of a conversation Troi and Dr. Crusher had regarding a rejuvenating effect of the Ba'ku planet (Star Trek: Insurrection).

Data's quote about "an obscure language known as French" is from "Code of Honor" (TNG 1x04):

DATA: It is a highly structured society in which people live by strict codes of honour. For example, what Lutan did is similar to what certain American Indians once did called counting coup. That's from an obscure language called French.


As one of the earliest stories involving Data, this episode is set during a time when his social skills are least developed and when such gaffes are all the more likely. Data may simply be repeating something he heard or read,(1)(2) without understanding that the quote is inappropriate for the new context.

Another possibility, again based on Data's social inexperience, is that this is his attempt at allowing his crewmates to save face. The pause in Data's speech after he mentions "counting coup" suggests that he intends to end the description there. Then, when Picard and the others do not react, Data's reference to the obscurity of French could be his attempt at giving them an excuse for not recognizing the term.

French is apparently a living language on 24th Century Earth. French accents still exist, as spoken by Picard's mother ("Where No One Has Gone Before", TNG 1x06) and the people in the Café des Artistes ("We'll Always Have Paris", TNG 1x24). The degree to which these recreations match the in-universe reality is unknown(3), but Picard doesn't think that these speech patterns are out-of-place, so it does not seem that French is "obscure" according to the common conversational use of the word.

(1) Chekov made several exaggerated claims about his Russian heritage, and Scotty wore a kilt as part of his formal uniform. In some situations, cultural pride and good-natured rivalry is still an acceptable part of life in 23rd (and presumably 24th) Century human society. Data would have trouble understanding, for example, that a taunt he overheard at an international sports match doesn't necessarily have any basis in science, or that the use of a word in conversation carries different connotations than its use in a scientific journal.

(2) Data's creator Dr. Noonian Soong, proud and highly opinionated, has little care for polite niceties, so he is a possible source for socially blunt quotes.

(3) The French-accented English dialogue that the audience hears could be meant as French in-universe, the way the Klingon language is translated for the audience during the trial of Kirk and McCoy in Star Trek VI. Conversely, both scenes are based on Picard's memories, and they may sound French only because they are tinged by his nostalgia for the French language.


Data is a graduate of Star Fleet Academy. There is a good chance he is quoting a professor, and thus the opinion of Star Fleet in general.

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    Hello and welcome to scifi.stackexchange, and thanks for your contribution. We do, however, try to avoid answers that are mostly or entirely speculation, as there are a lot of fan theories out there. A good answer will contain evidence from canon or other sources which supports the argument that it's trying to make.
    – Christi
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 17:26

Star Trek is written in English, targeting its main audience; the English-speaking population. That's all! It was a nice light jab at the Franco expense and it was humorous. I'm French and I thought it was cute.

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