What languages did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe speak?

Beyond Wikipedia, there is something else to be said.First of all, a nice truth that is about as misleading as the fact that Albert Einstein had fives and sixes in math at school (Swiss grade scale: better than 6 is not possible). Goethe actually only went to school for two years!

He was then trained by private teachers, with the living languages taught exclusively by native speakers.This included Yiddish, but Hebrew seems to be only so-called .e.g. To have learned “Old Hebrew”, i.e. the language that is relevant to the centuries of the creation of the biblical books in question. That he would have learned Hebrew or even Aramaic later – both necessary to read the Talmud, of which there was no translation into modern Western languages.

He has obviously used all his modern language skills, as well as those of Latin and Greek, quite extensively, by speaking with people of other mother tongues and often having close correspondence.

The fact that he also had a more international worldview than many, self-educated ones, of his compatriots is clear from the following statement:

The German should learn all languages, so that no stranger is uncomfortable at home, but he is at home everywhere in the stranger!”

Let us therefore consider French, English, Italian and Yiddish as “living” and Latin, ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew as “dead” languages.Even in the time of domestic training, he says later, he also tried to deal with Arabic. But he did not have any lessons in it, and so, for example, his handling of the Arabic alphabet tends to remain so-called. “passive” decipherment (there can be no question of reading). In any case, his writing exercises, which have been received in some of the years, look more like an unguided imitation and lack the necessary experience and practice. After all, he had Arabic works in original language in his private library.

On Arabic, he himself says:

“In no language is perhaps spirit, word and writing so originally assembled.” (Letter to Christian Heinrich Schlosser, 23.1.1815)

Thus he also dealt with the Koran, but only in translation.
In his autobiographical writings, however, he mentions that he learned Arabic from Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus, professor of oriental languages in Jena.

From his many translation activities it stands out as “new” language information that he also worked on the transmission of (some) works by Calderon, who was just quite “en vogue”.Goethe reports that he makes no secret of his “Arab education”.

It is believed that he may have also dealt with Cervantes.
From this, however, it cannot be concluded that Goethe was also powerful in Spanish.There were already templates, some in fragments. Goethe has worked above all to give the German translation poetic quality. To this end, he has repeatedly had correspondence to understand the source(s).
It is more likely that his access to Spanish was based more on his knowledge of Latin, French and Italian.

His interest in foreign-language poetry, however, remained huge.He later dealt with the newly published translations of Persian poetry and even saw the Persian poet Hafis (or Hafez) a close spiritual relative from whom neither the spatial, cultural nor temporal distance could separate him.
There is an interesting conversation note about Persian:

“In such a translation of foreign folk songs, a great deal depends on maintaining the word position of the original. I can’t speak Serbian as much as I can, but I’ve abstracted the word by viewing the originals.” (Conversation with Friedrich von Muller, 1825)

In Goethe’s estate there are numerous records in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Syrian and Sanskrit.In particular, calligraphic experiments served him “to grasp oriental culture through this sensually appealing writing,” writes Anke Bosse.

He would certainly have had access to language acquisition in these and other “oriental” languages.Thus the study of several of these languages was already possible in 1713 in Halle (he was not yet born), or e.g. in Vienna since 1754. The Faculty of Vienna produced many well-known translators and diplomats who made good connections and a strong influence for the k.u.k monarchy, especially in the Pre-Asian region and the Levant.

Here is also Goethe’s access to Persian poetry.He became aware of the translation(s) by Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall and devoured it. He did not hide the fact that these were subject to massive criticism, especially by Heinrich Friedrich von Diez.
Goethe’s handling of this was wise and easy, as he himself could not speak Persian.He corresponded extensively with the two parties to the dispute in order to inform himself about details.

All this, however, is only attested to by Goethe’s extensive language education and his even greater interest in many languages, which he did not even know, but usually did not even try to learn.

However, it remains impossible to answer the question of which languages he “could”.This would require a clear definition of when a language can be “can”. But one would probably then be thrown back to the languages of his youth education, probably with the exception of biblical Hebrew and Yiddish. Unfortunately, they do not play a major role in his works, if at all.

The only language that Goethe probably “could” and excellently mastered by every definition was German.

* * * (Addendum:)

The subject raised by Howard Gaskill in a commentary below, I have dealt with more thoroughly in my answer to the following question:

What languages did Goethe know, and from which did he translate?

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