Languages & LinguisticsSocial Interaction & Networks

Always +1

J.C. always +1

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.

Some evid­ence:

* [source]

Heel goed, eigen broek oph­ouden is altijd plus één *

Very good, to sup­port your­self [fin­an­cially] is always plus one

* [source]

Argu­menteren met gelovi­gen, altijd +1 *

Arguing with reli­gious people, always +1

* [source]

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

* [source]

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.** See what I did there? 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.** Accord­ing to this art­icle, the Google +1 but­ton itself was launched a little earlier, in March 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.