I've been living in Germany for 17 years, and this morning the similarity of the phrase "What gives?" to the German "Was gibt's?" occurred to me, so I checked the net ...
The article "What Gives with What Gives?" by Brian Joseph of Ohio State University - also cited above - seems to provide a well founded discussion of the syntax and origin of the phrase in American English. Joseph argues, however, that the German may not be suitable as the origin of the phrase:
… 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).
For all us non-linguists out there, Wikipedia says:
In linguistics, a calque (/ˈkælk/) or loan translation is a word or
phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word
(Latin: verbum pro verbo) or root-for-root translation.
I believe, however, that his dismissal of the German as a source is flawed, because Joseph is principally arguing from a syntax-of-language standpoint and thus comparing the (written) WORDS instead of the SPOKEN language.
Clearly in a comparison of the SYNTAX of "Was - gibt - es ?" with the English "What - gives ?" the word "it" (="es") is missing in the English. However, back then even more so than today, language is primarily a SPOKEN organism! - and a comparison of the SPOKEN phrases provides a very solid argument for its origin from the German:
In the spoken German phrase "Was gibt es?" the second and third word are slurred together (at least, based on modern-day speech), so that only the "s" of "es" is pronounced (sorry, phonetics here are my best guess):
/vasɡiːpts/ and /vasɡɪpts/ (normally written out with an apostrophe: "Was gibt's")
In comparison to the English "What gives?", we can see (or rather hear) that the transition from the German to English comprises the translation of "Was" to "what" and the minimal change in the consonant sounds /pts/ to /vz/.
The final /s/ in the German becomes the third person inflection "(it) give*s*" in the English. In other words the word "it" IS implicitly present in the English, but as an inflection of the verb instead of as an extra word.
Wikipedia to the rescue again! Wikipedia explains that:
Calquing is distinct from phono-semantic matching. While calquing
includes semantic translation, it does not consist of phonetic
matching (i.e. retaining the approximate sound of the borrowed word
through matching it with a similar-sounding pre-existent word or
morpheme in the target language).
Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is a linguistic term referring to camouflaged borrowing in which a foreign word is matched with a phonetically and semantically similar pre-existent native word/root.
So, to summarize:
I argue that the phrase "what gives?" likely originates from the German "Was gibt's?", and transitioned to English primarily due to the phono-semantic match of the two phrases, and that the transition can be described as a calque in so far as the "it" is implied in the presence of the third person singular inflection /s/.
I would be gratified if a linguist would take my argument further, and reiterate it using the correct phonetics.