How do you talk about the future in Icelandic? The answer is made a little bit more complicated by the fact that Icelandic has no future tense. This does not mean that Icelandic has no way to talk about the future, but it does so in ways other than simple verb conjugation. In fact, this is very similar to English, which also lacks a future tense. Just like English, Icelandic expresses the future with the present tense and auxiliary verbs (or helping verbs).
In Icelandic, just like in English, you can use the present tense to talk about the future. This usually, but not always, requires a time marker like tomorrow or on Thursday or something similar.
Að verða is its own verb, with its own entry in the dictionary and everything, but it can be thought of as the future tense of að vera (to be). In that sense að verða can be thought of as meaning will be. Note that að verða can also have meanings other than indicating the future, but which meaning is intended should generally be quite clear from context.
Four auxiliary verbs can be used to indicate futurity: að ætla að, að fara að, að munu and að skulu. They’re roughly equivalent to going to, about to, will and (I)‘ll in English.
Að ætla að is the Icelandic equivalent to the English going to and possibly the most common way to mark the future in Icelandic. It is an imperfect equivalent to going to as it has a strong connotation of intent or planning.
If going to could be replaced with planning to, ætla is the right translation. It would be ridiculous to plan on things such as falling or getting injured (unless you are a football player). “I’m going to fall” or “you’re going to hurt yourself” would generally not be translated with ætla but one of the other methods of marking the future discussed in this article.
There are two variations of the auxiliary verb fara að.
Að vera að fara að indicates an imminent future; this is the closest future possible. It’s generally used for things which are just about to happen, likely in the next few seconds. Alternatively, speakers may use it to make an event seem imminent.
Að fara að, while literally translating as going to, means something closer to being about to. It indicates the immediate future, or things which are very close to happening.
In addition to indicating futurity, að fara að can also mean to start. Which meaning is intended is generally very clear from context. The future meaning can only be used with the present tense of fara, and the start meaning cannot be used with the present tense.
Að fara að can be chained to indicate slightly more distant future, að fara að fara að. Much like with the phrase ekki á morgun heldur hinn, further chaining (að fara að fara að fara að etc.) is theoretically possible, but convoluted, often used as a joke.
Að munu is the Icelandic equivalent to will. Since verða essentially means will be, munu is almost never used with vera (be) to indicate futurity. It is frequently over-used by second language learners who learn that it is how you mark the future, and then disregard ætla að, verða að, and the present as future. Note that, unlike ætla að and fara að, munu does not take að.
Að skulu indicates futurity with a strong association of willingness, such as when volunteering for something. Due to this connotation it’s much more commonly used with ég (I) than other persons. When translating to English it generally translates as will, just like munu, but almost always in a contraction (“I’ll go,” “I’ll do it,” etc.). Note that að skulu can also have meanings other than indicating the future, but which meaning is intended should generally be quite clear from context.
The present is frequently used to express the future, just like in English, often with a time marker like soon or on Tuesday. Að munu means will, but don’t overuse it: if you would say will be in English, use verða. Ætla að is the equivalent to going to, but only if there is intent. Use að fara að to indicate the very close future, and vera að fara að to indicate future so close it will interrupt the end of this se-oh, there it goes, puke on my shoes. Great.