What is the etymology of "Es gibt" in the sense of the English "There is/There are"?

In English, "There is" is used to indicate the existence of something abstract of physical, though as I understand it, "Es gibt" is generally used for more abstract concepts (link). That said, I still find the use of the verb "geben" to be quite odd.

Looking at the translations for "There is" on Wiktionary, the vast majority of the languages there either use the equivalent of the verbs "to be / sein" or "to have / haben" in their expressions for something existing. In fact, aside from the few languages that have a dedicated word for this concept, German was the only one I could find that used a verb other than "to be" or "to have".

So how did the phrase "Es gibt" come to have the meaning of something (abstract) existing?

  • 5
    This is in no way reserved for abstract concepts, you can equally well use the expression for concrete concepts. As a side note, in Swedish we use "det finns" which means "there is to be found" to say exactly the same thing.
    – Beta
    Mar 22 '17 at 19:50
  • 1
    "Es gibt" can be used for concrete objects too, "Es gibt Leute, die..." (There are people who...). The word 'give' can also have the sense of existence. As far as the origin of the phrase, I don't know. Mar 22 '17 at 22:08
  • In Chinese you use "have," with no subject. Mar 23 '17 at 14:54
  • 1
    In South-Western Germany's dialects, es hat is indeed used as a synonym for es gibt. Mar 27 '17 at 17:13

There is a gradual development from the Germanic and Old High Germangeban in the meaning of to give to the peculiar abstract usage es gibt which only occured in New High German.

There is quite an elaborate essay on almost all meanings and their etymology of geben in Grimm's dictionary. It would be beyond the scope of an answer here to fully translate this but let me try to give you the essence of what they believed was the origin of es gibt.

One meaning of geben is to give something away but also give it into somebodies hands. On crafting this hand can produce something as a result (ergeben). Later the "hand" was omitted to just leave the meaning of to make sth., to result in sth.. This also took place in English:

Die Sonne gibt Licht (The sun gives light)

Now in a next step the subject was further abstracted and initially was replaced by dies or das.

Disz gab allerlei Reden am Tische. Luther
Das wird eine schöne Geschichte geben, sagte das liebe Mädchen. Goethe

Later dies and das were further reduced to an integrating and indefinite es and at the same time the original meaning of geben (to give) became more and more obscure:

Wann man Pulver auf die Pfanne schüttet und die Lunte aufsetzet, so gibt es einen großen Knall. Schuppius
Sie (die Kugel) ist von Thon, es gibt Scherben. Göthe

  • Wow. That was an answer of a quality I would like to see more often here! Thank you! Mar 22 '17 at 20:17
  • In addition to this good answer, I want to add da ist und da haben are still an option for a number of cases. And then there is the verb ergeben of which one meaning is to give a result.
    – Janka
    Mar 22 '17 at 20:17
  • @Janka: yeah - we could endlessly elaborate this... and of course all variations still coexist until today (only es gibt developed last), The verb ergeben is already mentioned, perhaps a bit hidden.
    – Takkat
    Mar 22 '17 at 20:21

I always thought that this might have been originally intended to be translated as "it is given". Perhaps "by God" or "by nature". God gave it and now it is there.

  • Müsste es dann nicht mit "It was given" übersetzt werden? Mar 23 '17 at 4:04

In North American colloquial English, we can say "What gives?" to mean "Whatʹs going on?" To which "Es gibt ..." seems like a similar concept.


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