Was Adele offensive when she swore 33 times at Glastonbury?

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I was interviewed on BBC 2 this morning about pop star Adele’s swearing and the public reaction to it.  Here is the gist of it.

Adele was credited with having won over the Glastonbury festival on 26 June with a generous, celebratory set.  She did create some controversy by swearing 33 times during her performance after admitting that the BBC had warned her about her potty mouth.

How should we judge Adele’s swearing? Was it deliberate? Did she mean to offend?

Adele at Glastonbury 2016. ©Jordan Scammell

Adele at Glastonbury 2016. ©Jordan Scammell

The first important fact is that she used the word “fuck” and “fucking” rather than more offensive words. In other words, she was quite measured (in a way) and certainly didn’t mean to offend her audience.  Being a native speaker of English, Adele has perfect sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence. This means that she knows exactly what effect her words will have depending on the interlocutors and the situation. That skill is part of the reason why she is a great artist. She is able to combine the right words with the right tune and deliver them with such passion that they resonate with her audience. Her swearing is thus not a lack of competence but a different use of her communication skills: her swearwords reflected genuine emotions, she was bonding with the crowd and expressing her solidarity with them. This fits her image of being “the world’s most normal megastar – a bawdy best friend, confiding her deepest secrets to an audience of thousands”.

She did not swear to elicit laughs but to emphasise her authenticity, to boost her credibility, and to remind the audience of her working-class, Tottenham roots.  Although she sings in standard English in a relatively formal register (and there is no swearing in her songs), she speaks in a more informal register with a clear North London accent. The swearing was a way to tell her audience that she belongs to the “in-group”, in this case mostly teenagers and young adults who typically swear more frequently than older generations. She treated her audience like friends – incidentally the people we are most likely to swear with (Dewaele, 2015, 2016a) – and her banter, humour and swearing offered a welcome relief between the sad emotional songs that had her audience in tears.

The star, who famously suffers from stage fright may also have used swearwords for their cathartic effect, to allow her to vent her strong emotions. People who are more anxious and more stressed tend to swear more (Dewaele, 2016b; Jay & Jay, 2015). Another factor linked to frequency of swearing is the environment.  People who hear a lot of swearing, in the home or workplace, typically swear more across contexts and interlocutors. I wonder how much swearing goes on backstage at concerts and in studios.

So to conclude, I am convinced that Adele did not mean to offend when she swore at Glastonbury. Fans who were interviewed after the performance said it had been brilliant and very emotional, but did not mention the swearing. Of course, some curmudgeons who sat listening to the concert at home may have been offended by the swearing because they were not on the same emotional rollercoaster, surrounded by thousands of sweaty crying and yelling fans. And inevitably, the defenders of morality in public speech condemned the use of swearing on the BBC because some children might have picked up the F-words.  What these people ignore is the fact that children need to become aware that some words are taboo or “bad” words and others are non-taboo, “good” or neutral words (Jay & Jay, 2013). Most children already possess the rudiments of adult swearing when they enter school. In other words, swearing does not corrupt them. I’m of course not claiming that parents can freely swear when their kids are around or allow their kids to swear at them – on the contrary. We simply have to accept that kids will pick up this crucial aspect of pragmatic competence at some point in their life.

Another myth to dispel is that people who swear frequently have a limited vocabulary (Jay & Jay, 2015). The authors found that taboo word fluency was correlated with general fluency. Adele serves as an excellent example to counter the simplistic view that swearing is a symptom of language poverty.

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2015) British ‘Bollocks’ versus American ‘Jerk’: Do native British English speakers swear more –or differently- compared to American English speakers? Applied Linguistic Review 6(3): 309–339. doi 10.1515/applirev-2015-0015

Dewaele, J.-M. (2016a) Thirty shades of offensiveness: L1 and LX English users’ understanding, perception and self-reported use of negative emotion-laden words. Journal of Pragmatics 94, 112-127. doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2016.01.009

Dewaele, J.-M. (2016b) Self-reported frequency of swearing in English: Do situational, psychological and sociobiographical variables have similar effects on first and foreign language users? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2016.1201092

Jay, K. L., and T. B. Jay. (2013) A Child’s Garden of Curses: A Gender, Historical, and Age-related Evaluation of the Taboo Lexicon. The American Journal of Psychology 126, 459–475.

Jay, K. L., and T. B. Jay. (2015) Taboo Word Fluency and Knowledge of Slurs and General Pejoratives: Deconstructing the Poverty-of-Vocabulary Myth. Language Sciences 52, 251–259. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2014.12.003.

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