On Sub Specie I don’t write about linguistic matters all that much. I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps it’s because I spend most of my research time on the main subject of my PhD thesis: analogy and verbs, and I just didn’t feel like tackling that and other linguistic issues in my free time as well. Maybe that should change. At one point, I’ll probably summarise some of my findings on my main subject here in the future. In the mean time, I intend to rectify this glaring oversight in my blogging. There’s a lot to be said about language that’s suited to blogs as a medium; stuff that doesn’t warrant a whole journal article with a peer review process of two years, but that’s a bit bigger than what you can fit into a couple of tweets.
To kick off, I’d like to start with what is a relatively obscure phenomenon in the Dutch linguistic landscape: the use of +1 (or as a pronounced phrase plus één) as an adjective in predicative position. Basically, it’s used to signify approval or that something is better than something else, as might be expected.
Heel goed, eigen broek ophouden is altijd plus één *
Very good, to support yourself [financially] is always plus one
Argumenteren met gelovigen, altijd +1 *
Arguing with religious people, always +1
aangezien straaljagers altijd +1 zijn schotelen wij ‘m lekker aan je voor *
Since jet fighters are always +1, we’ll dish it out to you
Deze tent is echt plus één! *
This joint is totally plus one!
There’s probably a lot to say about the sociolinguistic specificity of this phrase. Based on a gut feeling, I would say it’s mostly used by men, the type that’s a bit boastful, trying to be masculine and cool. Apparently that includes frat boys and atheist windbags, but I digress.
Though not exclusively, +1 or plus één is mostly used as a phrase combined with altijd ‘always’, which you can use to signify that something is pretty much categorically +1. Other options include the abovementioned echt plus één ‘really +1’. Although theoretically I suppose you could use +1 without an additional intensifier, in practice I think it is less often used bare. Honestly, though, doing a web search for attestations of a bare use of +1 — or plus één, for that matter — is not really practical. An interesting elaboration on the phrase is its negative counterpart min één (found in the source for echt plus één above), which can of course be used to signify that something is, well, decidedly less awesome.
As the examples show, the phrase occupies the position usually filled by a predicative adjective. Jet fighters are always cool, always awesome, always +1. As such, it’s best analysed as an instance of grammaticalisation, though one of a special kind. The original +1 is not that straightforward to categorise as a linguistic sign. It’s a mathematical operator with its own verbal form that can be analysed as conjunction + numeral.* In terms of word classes then, it’s a two-word phrase turned into an adjective. Since I’ve seen no evidence of the phrase being used attributively (i.e. before the noun), I’d say it’s of roughly the same status as phrase like the bomb, as in that shit is da bomb! (also in Dutch: die shit is de bom!) That phrases can also grammaticalise into adjectives that can be used attributively is shown by something like off the hook, which can be used in both ways. Just google “an off the hook X” if you don’t believe me. A Dutch equivalent would be niet te filmen, which means roughly ‘unbelievable’, but which sounds a bit fogey-ish to me.
Last question, then, where does +1 come from? When I started thinking about the phrase today my mind as immediately pulled into the ever-expanding realm of Google. Of course, Google’s social networking platform is called Plus (or +), and the +1 button is Google+’ equivalent of the like button on Facebook. However, I had a nagging suspicion that the usage of +1 in Dutch predated Google’s use of the button. This seems to be more or less correct. The oldest attestation of altijd +1 that I could find was from late 2009, whereas Google+ didn’t launch until mid 2011.* Of course, lots of forum and comment systems on the web have been using + and – buttons for years to allow users to rate posts. I knew this, it’s just that Google almost successfully colonised my memory there. Very clever. In any case, it seems that Dutch people started using +1 and its related forms as a way to emphasise that they liked a certain post or comment, and from there the usage was extended to being usable to signify the plus oneness of any concept.
+1, like many instances of grammaticalisation, illustrates that people can be creative and flexible with phrases and word classes. It’s doubtful whether something like this will ever make it into mainstream language, but that is the fate of many innovations originating in youth and subcultural language. If you know where to look, there’s a veritable goldmine of linguistic innovation and language change. Which is always +1.