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I frequently hear 「あれ?」 when people find something that catches their attention, often even when a listening party is not present. It seems to have a similar function to "what?", "what's that?", or "huh?".

Since あれ isn't a "question word" itself, was this あれ contracted from a longer sentence? The closest I could think of is 「あれはなんだ?」, but I'm unsure. If it isn't from a longer sentence, is there an explanation behind あれ as a question?

I am also interested in if it was historically contracted from something.

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What is "what?!?!" contracted from in English? Why do you think using "that?!?!" makes any less sense than "what?!?!"? Both seem to make zero logical sense; they are simply idiomatic expressions. – user54609 Dec 4 '13 at 21:07
I don't think I ever think of 「あれはなんだ?」 when I say あれ;in fact, あれ rarely, if ever, even means "What is that?". – l'électeur Dec 5 '13 at 0:20
Unlike what you seem to think, we say あれ or あら to ourselves much more often than to others. – l'électeur Dec 5 '13 at 2:04
「あら」とか関係あるんですか? – nkjt Dec 5 '13 at 12:51
@user54609 meta.japanese.stackexchange.com/a/982/1478 – snailplane Dec 6 '13 at 2:15

I think it's less a question than it is a way to show surprise or confusion. Also I don't think it's contracted from anything, this dictionary defines it as a [感動詞]{かんどうし} or interjection which would hint that it's not a contraction of a larger sentence.

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