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In English, there are two idioms with the same meaning:

  • "You know what?" (»Weißt du was?«)
  • "You know something?" (»Weißt du etwas?«)

The »etwas« in the latter German phrase could conceivably be shortened to »was«. In fact, Duden writes:

weißt du was? (= weißt du etwas?)

Is there a way, e.g. etymologically, to find out whether the »was« in »Weißt du was?« really is an »etwas«?

  • Maybe it's possible to derive it: dwds: etwas: "Etwas" : generally referred to an unspecified "Bestimmtes", shortened to "was". Synonyms: irgendetwas , irgend was (ugs). old high german: eddes(h) waӡ (8. Jh.), edde(h) waӡ (um 1000), mhd. et(e)**waӡ*, eteswaӡ. Remarkable: always two syllables. Pure assumption: If you talk colloquial, you'll "swallow" some syllables, so over the time it became common speech. !only assumption -> comment – infinitesimalLeanne Aug 2 '11 at 14:48
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In cases such as this, "was" is actually synonymous with "etwas". Cf. definition III: http://de.pons.eu/dict/search/results/?q=was&in=&kbd=de&l=deen

  • There is indeed no difference in meaning. It's more of an academic question. – Tim Aug 2 '11 at 7:20
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    But there is a difference in meaning - same as in english. In the first case i want to tell sombody something and hope it's new or solves a problem. "Unser Herd ist kaputt." - "Weißt du was? Wir kochen nicht, wir gehen einfach essen." this is colloquial, accentuation is on "was". In the second case i want to know if someone heard rumors or knows facts unknown to me. "Peter geht es wohl nicht gut." - "Wieso? Weißt du (et)was?" meaning 'have you heard/seen/read something?' The accentuation here is on "Weißt" – user22338 Jul 6 '16 at 15:21
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Etwas

The word »etwas« is the neuter form of the distinct indefinit-pronoun

etewer

which meant: »someone« or »something«. Germanists think, that etewer is a load-translation of the latin word

aliquid

(again meaning: »something«)

This word (etewer/etewas/etwas) was also used to name vague and undefined amounts of something, and so lso became the meaning of »a little bit of«:

Etwas Salz = ein wenig Salz

»Etewer« is built from two parts: »et(e)« plus »wer/was«. For »wer« and »was« see below.

The German prefix »et« (or »ete« in distinct words) can also be found in »etlich« (an undefined numeral) and in »etwa« (an adverb):

Gerd hat bereits etliche Wettkämpfe gewonnen.
In Österreich leben etwa 8,7 Millionen Menschen.

This »et-« always means that something has an undefined amount. It can me much but also little. »Et-« just says that you don't know the exact number.


Was

The word »was« is often used as synonym for »etwas«, like in your example, and in this case it is an indefinite pronoun like etwas. It is (together with its "twin" »wer«) a very old indogermanic pronoun. »Wer« and »was« and the English words »who« and »what« derive from the same protoindogermanic roots »*kʷo-« and »*kʷe-«.

But »was« can also appear in two other flavors:

  • as interrogativ pronoun:

    Was siehst du?

  • as relative pronoun:

    Das ist alles, was ich habe.

But those two forms can not be thought as short forms of »etwas«. This is only possible for the

  • indefinite pronoun:

    Ich weis nicht, ob an dem Fall wirklich was dran ist.
    Ich weis nicht, ob an dem Fall wirklich etwas dran ist.

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