What Gives with What Gives?

Brian Joseph
Ohio State University

Hi Jorge! You may recall that you were the Graduate Teaching Associate in my first linguistics class (Linguistics 20a, taught by Sydney Lamb) at Yale in the fall of 1970. You were also the person who gave me a most valuable piece of advice in my early days at Harvard in the fall of 1973, insisting that I would be better off not opting out of the first semester of syntax just because I had taken it at Yale, your reasoning being that I would have to take the second semester anyway and so would benefit from the review that the first semester would afford. How right you were! It was only the second time around, so to speak, that I began to understand what syntax was all about, and my interest in the subject blossomed (leading as you remember to my dissertation topic, on Greek historical syntax). You were also the master teacher in my own first Teaching Assistant assignments, in the summer of 1974 and again in the fall of 1974. So you have had a significant impact on my development and career as a linguist, and as a small token of gratitude, and by way of wishing you well on this milestone birthday, I offer this brief piece to you.

The expression what gives, meaning 'what's happening; what's up' is a curiosity in English that raises some interesting questions and allows for some interesting insights, both pedagogical and substantive.

For one thing, it occurs in two and only two syntactic contexts, as a direct question (see (1a)) and as an indirect question (see (1b)):

(1)a.What gives with these banana slugs?
 b.I don't know what gives with these banana slugs.

Also, it appears to be an anomalous intransitive use of give, which otherwise is generally ditransitive, so that the quasi-existential meaning and the valence of the expression is unexpected from the standpoint of the usual semantics of exchange and transaction found with give. Thus one question to ask is why this expression shows these anomalies. An answer (of sorts) is suggested below, but first a few insights.

For anyone who might think that direct and indirect question constructions should not be related in some way, the fact that the oddities (regarding the valence and meaning of give) found in the direct question use of what gives are duplicated in its indirect question use provides a classic type of argument for some mechanism in the grammar that directly connects the two and thus reflects a relationship between them (e.g., in an Aspects- or Extended Standard Theory-type generative syntax framework, via a transformation that derives an indirect question from an embedded direct question). Such facts would make for a suitable elementary problem for a class on syntactic argumentation, of the sort that Jorge Hankamer has utilized with such effectiveness in his own teaching of beginning syntax.

From a theoretical standpoint, because the expression only occurs in question form, with the WH-word what as subject, there is no related non-question form (i.e., *Something gives is ungrammatical in the meaning 'Something is up'). Coupled with the fact that what gives is essentially an idiom, with idiomatic (noncompositional) semantics, and thus presumably lexically listed in that form, the nonoccurrence of a nonquestion counterpart to what gives means that at least some WH-expressions need to be listed in the lexicon in their question form. That is, not all WH-questions are generated by the equivalent of a rule of WH-Movement; some must be base-generated as questions.

Regarding the issue of why what gives is anomalous, the best that I can offer (speaking now as an historical linguist) is to suggest that we turn to the history of the construction, but even there, full enlightenment is not forthcoming (see Joseph 2000 for more detailed discussion). The construction seems clearly to have originated in American English; the first attestation for what gives comes in 1940, in John O'Hara's Pal Joey, according to Wentworth and Flexner (1960: 574, s.v. what gives) and the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 on-line second edition). Even with this late attestation, what gives makes for an interesting comparison with the German existential use of geben 'to give', in the impersonal form with an expletive subject, es gibt, as in Es gibt keinen Gott 'There is no god', itself anomalous from the point of view of the usual syntax and meaning of geben. Such a comparison might well sanction a reconstruction of a Proto-West-Germanic prototype for an existential construction with *geb- in the third person singular; if so, then the anomalous character of what gives would be largely a matter of an inherited anomaly from earlier stages of Germanic, persisting into Modern English. This possibility is enhanced further by the fact that a cognate to the Germanic *geb- 'give' root is found in Latin habeo: 'have', which itself figures in an (admittedly late) existential construction with an impersonal form of the verb (3SG habet).

Some scholars however see what gives as having arisen via language contact, as a calque from German, an origin for it which would eliminate a basis for a Proto-West-Germanic prototype, but might allow for a different explanation for the anomalies this expression shows; that is, under such a view, it would show an anomaly because it is a borrowing in the same way that an expression like It goes without saying, calqued from French Ça va sans dire, does, with its unusual passive-like voice semantics for an active form of say. In particular, it has been suggested (Chapman (1986: 463, s.v.); see also Wentworth and Flexner ibid.) that what gives is a loan translation from German or Yiddish was gibt 'What's going on?'. However, Yiddish does not make use of existential gebn at all, and there is no German expression that is simply was gibt! Rather, colloquial German has was gibt es? 'What is the matter? What's up?', but this is not a suitable source for what gives since the putative calquing did not lead to a direct counterpart to the German subject pronoun es (thus, what gives, not *what gives it or *what does it give).

Also, the conditions under which a German phrase would have been the basis for an American English calque in the first half of the 20th century—assuming that the date of first attestion is a clear index of the expression's entry into English—are not clear. Yiddish comes to mind as a possible conduit, as Chapman suggests, by which a German(-like) construction could find its way into English, but Yiddish does not have the relevant construction; nor does Pennsylvania German of the various Mennonite and Amish communities in the Mideast and Midwest (including Jorge Hankamer's home state of Texas!), another potential source of Germanisms in American English. Finally, given anti-German sentiment in post-World War I America, it is hard to see what the motivation would be for the calquing of any German expression at that time.

Thus it may well be that despite the late attestation of what gives in American English, it does form a valid basis for a comparison with the German es gibt construction, and thus allows for a reconstruction of a Proto-West-Germanic existential use of 'give', which survives marginally into present usage. The jury is perhaps still out on the origins of this construction, but its anomalous nature in present-day English makes it worthy of note, and certainly the sort of syntactic puzzle that Jorge Hankamer has taught us all to appreciate.


Chapman, Robert L., ed. 1986. New Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Harper and Row.

Joseph, Brian D. 2000. 'What gives with es gibt? Typological and comparative perspectives on existentials in German, in Germanic, and in Indo-European'. To appear in B. Drinka and J. Salmons, eds., Germanic Language and Culture in Historical Perspective: Essays in Memory of Edgar C. Polomé (special issue of the American Journal of Germanic Languages and Literatures).

Wentworth, Harold, and Stuart B. Flexner. 1960. Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.