The Icelandic word “skal” was once synonymous with the English word “shall”, but that isn’t the case anymore.
The main use of “skal” is to express willingness to take care of something, willingness to do something, willingness to take on responsibility. It may either refer to your own willingness to do something but can also be used to tell someone to take care of something or tell someone to take on responsibility.
In these contexts, „ég skal“ translates to “I’ll”.
- Ég skal gera þetta. = I’ll do this.
- Ég skal reyna. = I’ll try.
- Ég skal hringja í þig þegar ég er búinn að borða. = I’ll call you after I’ve eaten.
- Ég skal koma klukkan ellefu. = I’ll come at 11 o’clock.
- Ég var eiginlega búinn að lofa henni að ég skyldi redda þessu fyrir hana. = I had sort of promised her that I’d fix this problem for her.
In the same vein, „þú skalt“ translates to „you’ll“. It tells someone to take on the responsibility of doing something, but it’s not rude.
- Heyrðu já, þú skalt endilega heyra í mér með þetta á eftir. = Ah yes, do get in contact with me later to discuss this, by all means.
- Sértu með einhverjar tillögur skaltu láta mig vita. = In case you have any suggestions, do let me know.
„Við skulum“ is has the same meaning, but would be translated as the English “let’s”.
- Já, við skulum gera það á morgun. = Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.
- Heyrðu, við skulum fara að koma okkur. = Let’s get going.
It also has some alternative uses. The one students usually find really strange and difficult to get used to is when it is used as a helper word when constructing the past or present. In all of the following sentences, the use of „skal“ could have been avoided and we could have just constructed a normal past or present, but using „skal“ adds a different kind of flavor to the sentence in a way that’s difficult to translate to English. It sort of shifts the focus away from the main verb, a contrived example might be the difference between “So nice that you came” and “So nice that you did come”.
- Gaman að þú skulir hafa komið. = So nice that you came.
- Fyndið að þú skulir nefna það akkúrat núna. = So funny that you should mention that right now.
- Mér fannst það eiginlega bara skrýtið að hún skyldi hafa litað á sér hárið. = I sort of just thought that it was strange that she had dyed her hair.
- Vá, en flott að þú skulir hafa fengið svona góða vinnu. = Wow, quite impressive that you got such a good job.
- Þeir eru tvíburar, svo að það er ekki skrýtið að þú skulir hafa ruglað þeim saman. = They are twins, so it’s not strange that you got them mixed up.
You can also use „skal“ to construct hypothetical sentences. They often sound hyper-polite, making them a great choice for writing business emails. Here the word means “If it so happens that ... / In case that ...”
- Bara að benda á þetta ef þú skyldir ekki vita af þessu. = I’m just pointing this out in case you didn’t know about this.
- Ef þig skyldi þig langa í sund á morgun er ég laus. = In case you would be up for going for a swim tomorrow, then I’m free.
Some old phrases still survive where the meaning is still the English “shall”. It often sounds old-timey or Biblical.
- Skal gert. = “Yup, I’ll do it”. The literal meaning is “That shall be done”. This phrase is extremely common.
- Þú skalt ekki stela. = You shall not steal.
- Rétt skal vera rétt. = “Right shall be right”, or “I am correcting this for the sake of correctness”. (This is a phrase.)
- Heyrðu, það er gott að heyra, þá veit ég hvert skal leita með svoleiðis vandamál. = Ah, that’s good to hear, then I know to where one is supposed to turn with this type of a problem.
Students have a tendency to incorrectly use this verb because they are thinking in English. They might for example incorrectly say „Skulum við byrja?“ (“Shall we start”), but what they should say is „Eigum við að byrja?“. Another example would be the incorrect „Skal ég fara?“ when what they want to say is „Á ég að fara?“.