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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German polymath. I've found information that say he was a polyglot who wrote primarily in Latin, French and German, but I cannot find any specific info about the other languages he spoke or wrote in.

  • No idea what the precise list is, but FWIW cursory googling "Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz languages" suggests it he liked studying languages. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 24 '18 at 8:14
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    You might consider that reading & writing a language is not the same thing as being able to speak it, or understand it when spoken. – jamesqf Apr 24 '18 at 17:47
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Among his other accomplishments, Leibniz was one of the pioneers of what we today call Linguistics. This means he studied a lot of languages, but would have had a smaller set he actually was good enough to communicate in. Given this spectrum of competency, it would probably be best to classify languages he "knew" by how he used them.

Languages he actually wrote in:

  1. Latin (most of his work)
  2. French (A lot of his philosophical work)
  3. German (his family journal. Almost certainly his native tongue)
  4. English (some essays on Hebrew)
  5. Italian
  6. Dutch

Languages he likely knew and/or proclaimed expertise in

  1. Classical Chinese (He wrote extensively about it)
  2. Sanscrit
  3. Hebrew (Correctly refuted the idea that it was the original language of humankind)
  4. "Slavic Languages"

Languages he had some exposure to:

  1. Classical Greek

Languages he's reported to have known in some way, but I so far haven't been able to track down reliable references for.

  1. Albanian
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    If anyone can find more to add to this, feel free to do so. I've changed it to a CW answer. – T.E.D. Apr 24 '18 at 16:53
  • I came across some other info yesterday (though I didn't find Dutch or Sanskrit so +1 for those), still trying to figure out how to add it to yours - a bit tricky maybe given what I have (it doesn't contradict yours, it's just a bit different). Might be best posted in a separate answer, still thinking about it... – Lars Bosteen Apr 24 '18 at 23:02
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    I’m reasonably sure Leibniz could read Ancient Greek from both school and his father’s library. – ig0774 Apr 25 '18 at 1:20
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    Also, some of Leibniz’s correspondence was written in Italian (and Dutch) – ig0774 Apr 25 '18 at 1:30
  • He also taught himself Greek, studied Albanian, and had a fascination for Slavic languages, if his Wikipedia page and this page are anything to go by. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 25 '18 at 6:23
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This post is intended as a 'supplement' to T.E.D.'s, filling in some details on when and how he learnt various languages.

Until the age of six, when his father died, Leibniz spoke German at home. At seven he began to teach himself Latin using illustration and a work by Livy to help him. At either nine or twelve (depending on which source you believe), he started teaching himself Greek (classical rather than modern), though by this time he was already at a school where pupils were only allowed to speak Latin and Greek. Later, he read Aristotle in Greek. He also wrote and recited poems in Latin as a child, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.

At the University of Leipzig,

Among the other topics which were included in this two year general degree course were rhetoric, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

According to Kato Lomb (herself a polyglot) in Harmony of Babel, Leibniz

wrote his doctoral dissertation in Latin, his historical treatises in English, and his books on theology in French. He agitated in German for rapprochement toward France.

Throughout his life, most of Leibniz's correspondence (he had hundreds of correspondents) was written in Latin and French, with a small amount in German. On German,

Leibniz, unlike many of his contemporaries, wrote German clearly and well, and he considered its mastery essential to the progress of modern European society....it is ironic that his work arguing for the use of the German language was in fact written in Latin.

He polished his French during his time in Paris, before he went to work for Duke Johann Friedrich (of Brunswick - Lüneburg - Calenberg) as Privy Counsellor at a court where the language was French.

Leibniz spent quite some time in England, meeting many people there, so it is not unlikely that he also spoke English at least reasonably well. He also spent over a year in Italy, his knowledge of Italian demonstrated by this story which he liked to tell:

There is a story from that period, which Leibniz was fond of repeating. While he was crossing alone in a small boat from Venice to Mesola in Ferrara, a violent storm blew up. The ship's pilot proposed to throw Leibniz overboard and keep his possessions and money. As justification, the Italian pilot asserted (since he did not believe he would be understood by Leibniz, a German) that he considered him the cause of the storm because he was a heretic. Whereupon Leibniz brought out a rosary he had taken with him as a precaution and pretended to use it devoutly. This artifice succeeded; a sailor told the pilot that since Leibniz was not a heretic, it would not be right to throw him overboard.

For many years, Leibniz communicated (in Latin) with Jesuits priests in China as he was deeply interested in Chinese thought, culture and language, all three of which he devoted a considerable amount of study time to. In addition this, as a linguist with a particular interest in constructing an artificial language, Leibniz studied a variety of languages, including Welsh, Danish and Sanskrit (but there is no firm evidence that wrote in or spoke any of these).


Other sources:

Benson Mates – The Philosophy of Leibniz

Paul Lodge - Leibniz and His Correspondents

300 years after the death of Leibniz - what can we still learn from him today?

Gottfried Leibniz

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    Interesting story: My putting English up there was initially due to finding out that, in his capacity as ambassador(/spy), he at one point faked a letter arguing in favor a Hanoverian candidate being put in the English line of Succession, but got found out and Censured by Parliament. I haven't found an online copy (anyone?), but that would have to have been in English (and fairly passable English) to have any hope of being effective. – T.E.D. Apr 25 '18 at 14:50
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    @T.E.D. Nice find! Considering research showing that German speakers find learning English easier than almost anyone else, it would be hard to believe that someone as gifted as Leibniz would have had much difficulty reaching a reasonable level of English proficiency fairly quickly. Dutch would also have easy for him, but I haven't found any evidence of his using it. Does anyone have a link for this? – Lars Bosteen Apr 25 '18 at 15:17
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    @ig0774 claimed he wrote in Dutch in the comments. I put it up on the board partially on his say-so, and partially because my own research strongly implied he knew it (so its a very credible claim). However, it would be really nice to be able to put up a link to the letter he supposedly wrote in Dutch (even a translation of it). – T.E.D. Apr 25 '18 at 15:27

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