Perusing some 19th-century grammar books for another purpose, I came across an interesting etymology:

"According to Grimm 'shall' or 'skal' is the preterite or perfect of a verb meaning 'to kill'. As killing involved the payment of the penalty of wer-geld, 'I have killed,' came to mean 'I owe the fine,' and thence 'I owe' simply."

-Mason, C.P.. English grammar, including grammatical analysis. London, 1890.

I became curious, but was unable to find any corroboration of this etymology younger than the 1800s. For the details of the claim, I managed to find Jacob Grimm's original assertion(in German):

"Skal debeo setzt skila voraus, aber der begrif, welchen ich diesen wörtern beilege, wird überraschen. skila muſs heiſsen ich tödte oder verwunde, skal ich habe getödtet, verwundet und bin zu wergeld verpflichtet. von skila ist übrig das goth. skilja lanio schlächter, tödter."

-Grimm, Jacob. Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Leipzig, 1848. pp. 902-903.

Is anyone here expert enough in Germanic studies to prove or disprove this etymology?

  • 1
    Shall: Ground sense of the Germanic word probably is "I owe," hence "I ought." The sense shifted in Middle English from a notion of "obligation" to include "futurity." Its past tense form has become should (q.v.). Cognates outside Germanic are Lithuanian skeleti "to be guilty," skilti "to get into debt;" Old Prussian skallisnan "duty," skellants "guilty." etymonline.com/index.php?term=shall
    – user66974
    Mar 8, 2017 at 17:26
  • Yes I saw that but I dont see how it proves or disproves the above claim. The cognates could theoretically also be related to killing.
    – Brian J
    Mar 8, 2017 at 21:06
  • 1
    So you are looking for evidence that the original German term skal meant to kill?
    – user66974
    Mar 8, 2017 at 21:12
  • Skal is Norse, I believe, and according to Grimm there exists a very similar-looking word which means to kill or wound in Norse, skila. The real question is whether skila, meaning to kill, and skal, meaning owe or shall, are really from the same root. It could just be that they sound alike, in which case Grimm was wrong. But if they are related, the wergeld story would seem more plausible.
    – Brian J
    Mar 8, 2017 at 21:20
  • 2
    Etymonline does not suggest the the "kill" meaning: Proto-Germanic *skal- (source also of Old Saxon sculan, Old Frisian skil, Old Norse and Swedish skola, Middle Dutch sullen, Old High German solan, German sollen, Gothic skulan "to owe, be under obligation;" related via past tense form to Old English scyld "guilt," German Schuld "guilt, debt;" also Old Norse Skuld, name of one of the Norns), from PIE root skel- (2) "to be under an obligation."
    – user66974
    Mar 8, 2017 at 21:24

1 Answer 1


Wiktionary "Shall" is obviously Pan Germanic.

Jacob Helfenstein Helfenstein, who wrote a few decades after Jacob Grimm correctly defines "shall" as historically meaning "owe". He may not have been influenced much by Grimm in this case.

However, J. Pokorny Julius Pokorny offers four routes traveled by the reconstructed Indo-European root (s)kel. Among them, both "owe" and "cut".
While Jacob Grimm was into telling stories, he was clearly very perceptive in ways language develops. His work on the First Germanic Sound Shift Wikipedia alone would be enough to give his thoughts credibility.

The quote from Grimm in the question offers no proof that "shall" was related to any form of killing. It does suggest that Jacob Grimm confused similar words (words that might have had a common origin).
But, the word we have in English, "shall", cannot be said not to have an origin involved with some very ancient "wergeld", that is, if Pokorny's assumptions are correct.Those assumptions have the "owe" meaning only in Germanic and Balto-Slavic. That suggests the possibility that the root that developed into the English "shall" might have come from some form of mayhem. There is no proof of it, and, any speculation on Indo-European roots has to be a matter of reasonable guesses. If the connection is there, it would be very old, far older than any medieval practices.

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