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I am ESL. I do not know Latin. User None commented

Anyway you should bear in mind that Should is the past tense of shall, and shall was used in Old English to express necessity/obligation (OED). Should is the modal verb that is used to express (among other things) a moral obligation and the conditional. Devoir comes from Latin debere an auxiliary verb that indicates necessity, obligation. Devoir has kept that meaning all along.

  1. I still don't grok the semantic relationship between English 'should', with Latin debere ⟶ French devoir. Why did French choose Latin debere and French devoir to translate 'should'?

  2. Why does French use the present conditional of devoir?

11.3.2 ‘should’

’should’ has four main meanings:

(a) ‘should’ may indicate a moral obligation. This is usually rendered by the use of devoir:

Tu devrais téléphoner chez toi plus souvent. You should phone home more often. (devoir in the conditional form to indicate the moral duty)

Roger Hawkins and Richard Towell, French Grammar and Usage (2015 4 edn), p 279.

DEVOIR : Définition de DEVOIR

Prononc. et Orth. : [d(ə)vwa:ʀ], (je) dois [dwa]. Ds Ac. 1694-1932. Homon. devant (prép.), dois, doit, doigt. Étymol. et Hist. A. Devoir + inf., rôle d'auxil. 1. 842 marque l'obligation, la nécessité (Serments de Strasbourg ds Henry, p. 1 : dift [3epers. du sing. de l'ind. prés.]); fin xes. deveir (Passion de Clermont, ibid., p. 4, 33); 2. ca 1050 marque le futur (Alexis, éd. Chr. Storey, 279); 3. ca 1100 devoir marque la probabilité (Roland, éd. J. Bédier, 389 : Li soens orgoilz le devreit bien confondre); 4. id. marque un souhait (ibid., 1149 : Li emperere nos devreit bien venger); 5. id. marque l'intention (ibid., 333). B. Devoir + compl. d'obj. dir. ca 1155 « être tenu, légalement ou moralement, de donner ou de restituer quelque chose à quelqu'un » (Wace, St Nicolas, éd. E. Ronsjö, 808); av. 1188 « être redevable de quelque chose » (Partonopeus de Blois, éd. J. Gildea, 6891). C. Devoir (à qqn ou à qqc.) de + inf. 1784 « être redevable de » (Beaumarchais, Mère coupable, I, 8 ds Littré). Du lat. class. debĕre, de mêmes sens.

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    You can look up etymology online. I doubt you mean that word though. French has a conjugated verb for "should" as in have a duty to. English does not. English only has modal: should + a verb. So, tu devrais faire x becomes You should do x. In any case, this forum doesn't really deal with French-into-English issues.
    – Lambie
    Dec 12, 2021 at 20:07
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    I don't really understand what you are asking. Anyway you should bear in mind that Should is the past tense of shall, and shall was used in Old English to express necessity/obligation (OED). Should is the modal verb that is used to express (among other things) a moral obligation and the conditional. (to be continued)
    – None
    Dec 12, 2021 at 20:23
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    (continued) Devoir comes from Latin debere an auxiliary verb that indicates necessity, obligation. Devoir has kept that meaning all along. Different etymologies and histories but lots of common points. In French the conditional is formed by modifying the endings of verbs.
    – None
    Dec 12, 2021 at 20:26
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    Why did French choose Latin debere and French devoir to translate 'should'? Or did English translators choose 'should' to translate 'devoir', don't you think ?
    – XouDo
    Dec 12, 2021 at 22:12
  • French never "chose" anything, neither did English. Languages have histories, they move along, and they started doing so long before they even "met" and people started translating into other languages. You should maybe consider trying to relate languages in the form ideas instead of words. Word for word correspondance doesn' t work.
    – None
    Dec 12, 2021 at 23:38

2 Answers 2

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let's refer to the etymolgy of should to see the connection :

Should c. 1200, from Old English sceolde, past tense of sceal (see shall). Preserves the original notion of "obligation" that has all but dropped from shall.

an for shall (emphasis mine) :

Old English sceal, Northumbrian scule "I owe/he owes, will have to, ought to, must" (infinitive sculan, past tense sceolde), a common Germanic preterite-present verb (along with can, may, will), from 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."

I think we can see a connection to the notion of debt / to owe something with the French equivalent devoir.

I'm no translation expert, but here what I understand:

he shall do something

may be rendered with the indicative mood of devoir or the future tense :

  • il doit faire quelque chose (obligation)
  • il fera quelquechose (futur),

Now as a modified/weakened version of shall, should may be rendered with conditionnal mood of devoir:

he should do something

il devrait faire quelque chose (conseil, suggestion)

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  • Il doit faire quelque chose. is not He shall do something. It's: He should do something.
    – Lambie
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:30
  • Comme vous le savez, shall n'a pas d'équivalent exact en Français. "Il doit faire quelque chose" est bien une des traductions possibles pour he shall do something (cf. DeepL par ex.). Should est plus facile et c'est généralement traduit "devrait". (cf Deepl et google trad par ex.)
    – XouDo
    Dec 13, 2021 at 17:57
  • J'aurais du m'en douter. Deepl. Tous ces sites sont bourrés d'erreurs. He shall do something=il fera x. He shall do it. n'est pas Il doit faire quelque chose. Quelle idée....
    – Lambie
    Dec 13, 2021 at 18:14
  • Comme dit plus haut ce n'est pas la seule traduction possible suivant le contexte, je vous laisse faire vos recherches.
    – XouDo
    Dec 13, 2021 at 20:00
  • Je n'ai pas besoin de faire des recherches. Je parle suffisamment bien les deux langues pour savoir ce que je dis. He shall do something. ne veut pas dire en aucun cas Il doit faire quelque chose.
    – Lambie
    Dec 13, 2021 at 20:03
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Short answer:

Devoir is used in the present tense to (among other things) indicate strong obligation. "Tu dois" = "You must, you have too".

Conditional is used to "soften" that obligation. "Tu devrais" = "You should, you ought to". That's about it, you don't need to go as far as the Latin etymology.


It's not just devoir. For instance Falloir works the same way. "Il faut ..." = "I/you/one must ..., "Il faudrait ..." = "I/you/one should ...*".

There's also vouloir, where je voudrais is used as a softened and more polite je veux (I want).

I would even say this can apply to any verb when reporting events, to "soften" the affirmation, to mitigate how certain we are of the facts. For example, when reporting crimes or other news, a sentence using "allegedly" or "reportedly" in English would use conditional in French.

Le coupable se serait enfui à pied

The culprit allegedly fled the scene on foot

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