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"X shall happen" means "X is (strongly) expected to happen" ("X wird geschehen") or "X is hoped for to happen" ("X soll geschehen")

German "Ich will, dass X geschieht" means "I want X to happen" (different from "I hope for X to happen").

English "X will happen" means "X is (strongly) expected to happen".

My question is:

Is there an etymological link between shall (sollen/werden) und will (wollen/werden)?

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  • I was taught that 'I shall do X' means that I expect to do it, 'I will do X' means that I am determined to do it. With 'you' it's the other way round; Cinderella's fairy godmother says 'You shall go to the ball'. Aug 31, 2017 at 16:19
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    Do you think there is an etymological link in German?
    – Mitch
    Aug 31, 2017 at 19:03

1 Answer 1

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There isn't an etymological link. "Shall" and "will" have different historic roots, which both can be found in Old English as "sceal" and "wyllan".

The etymology for "shall" goes back to Old English "sceal", which describes an obligation to do a thing. If you shall go to work on Monday, you shall because you must out of obligation.

The etymology for "will" goes back to Old English "wyllan" (also "willan"), which describes a desire or a wish. If you will go to work on Monday, it's because you want to go to work on Monday.

These meanings in general have not carried through to the modern day. Today, "shall" and "will" can be used interchangeably by way of the third definition of "shall" and the third of "will" as offered by Meriam Webster Online as "used to express futurity", though "shall" in particular is less common in colloquial American English than in British English. "Shall" also appears more commonly in legal writings written in both British and American English than in common literature.

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  • I do not think that "shall" and "will" can be used interchangeably. It is just that their use as a future marker has lost the original meaning. (And I think not too long ago "shall" was used in the first person, "will" otherwise, at least in prescribed grammar, and now "will" is used almost exclusively.) But you can still will something to happen, and "shall" can describe obligations in a way that I think "will" cannot.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 5, 2017 at 15:13
  • By the way, in German the original meanings are preserved. It probably helps that neither is used for the future tense, werden is.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 5, 2017 at 15:15
  • @CarstenS "Shall" is used to convey a sense of mandate in legal writing in particular, but the third definitions of both "shall" and "will" as offered by Meriam Webster's online dictionary show us that both terms are commonly used to express futurity. It is in this sense that they are interchangeable, and I believe this context is the one that most closely matches the question. I will add links to the definitions for clarity.
    – R Mac
    Sep 5, 2017 at 15:17

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