Hen: Sweden’s new gender-neutral pronoun

Sweden’s gender-neutral pronoun, which aims to combat discrimination, is now recognised in the Swedish dictionary. But as well as recognising social progress, can language influence it, too?

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ It’s a piece of wisdom every child knows — but perhaps it’s rather misleading. Language has the potential to exclude and offend, but it is also a powerful tool for recognising change.

And that is exactly what is happening in Sweden. The official dictionary of the Swedish language will next month introduce a new pronoun — a word such as ‘he’ or ‘she’ in English which replaces a noun.

The new word, ‘hen’, is Sweden’s first gender-neutral pronoun, a word that refers to a specific person without revealing their gender. This is useful when gender is unknown or irrelevant, or when someone doesn’t identify with one gender or the other.

But while ‘hen’ is new to the dictionary, it has been around in Sweden since the 1960s, when it was invented to simplify the clumsy ‘he/she’ construction in writing. Before then, the pronoun ‘han’, meaning ‘he’, was commonly used instead. But as it became increasingly politically incorrect, ‘hen’ started to grow in popularity. The word’s success can be attributed to Sweden’s strong feminist leanings: it was named the world leader in equality in 2013 by the Global Gender Gap Report.

In English, there is no such pronoun, but A A Milne once said that ‘if the English language had been properly organised’ we would have one. The closest word we have to ‘hen’ is ‘they’, and traditionally we have used ‘he’ for gender-unspecific sentences. But some linguists say we should have one to address those who don’t define themselves by gender, and to reflect social progress.

The success of the gender-neutral pronoun in Sweden, and relative failure in the UK, opens up a wider question about the relationship between language and politics. There is no doubt the English language reflects change: it has evolved alongside changing attitudes towards race equality, and those with disabilities. Many words which were once commonplace are now deemed offensive.

But some believe that language does much more. One feminist writer says ‘language is power’, as it impacts how we think about the world and communicate with each other, which is exactly what brings about social change.

The hen and the egg

‘Language changes as the world changes’, argues one journalist. If language had a strong influence, prejudice would change alongside it. But that isn’t the case. Deciding that a word is offensive does not abolish the offence it refers to — or make it go away.

Some language lovers disagree: words are more powerful than we realise, they say. Changing the way we talk about things alters the way we experience them: a linguistic tweak can amend how we relate to the world and to each other.

You Decide

  1. Should English have a new gender-neutral pronoun?
  2. Can words change how we see the world?

Activities

  1. Research a famous speech in history and analyse the use of language which contributed to its popularity. What rhetorical devices does the speaker deploy?
  2. No doubt the English language is comprehensive, but in some instances it doesn’t offer exactly the right word. ‘They’ is a good example of a word which can be not quite fitting. Find another hole in our vocabulary and invent a word to fix it.

Some People Say...

“If you want to be radical in your politics, you must be conservative with your language”

Nick Cohen

What do you think?

Q & A

Apart from those who don’t identify with one gender, how can we benefit from a gender-neutral pronoun?
There are many ways we could benefit. For one, our writing could be clearer: rather than having to write ‘he/she’, which looks clunky, or ‘they’, which can be ambiguous, It would also allow religious people to have a gender-neutral God.
Is Sweden more gender-equal than the UK?
The UK has really progressed over the years, but Sweden is arguably winning the race. Several Swedish children’s authors have published books with gender-neutral protagonists, and some shops have started to remove gendered toys. Also, Swedish schools and nurseries are increasingly using gender-neutral language. The UK may seem to lag behind, but perhaps things could be different if we have a gender-neutral pronoun.

Word Watch

their
An example of a ‘problem’ (some would say) with English – ‘their’ (plural) refers to ‘a specific person’ (singular).
Doesn’t identify
Some people identify as transgender, where one’s gender identity doesn’t match that assigned at birth. Others don’t relate to any gender, and therefore can’t relate to either ‘he’ or ‘she’.
Politically incorrect
This term refers to the social boundaries most of us adhere to in order not to offend, upset or alienate anyone. Political correctness was originally advocated by left-wing thinkers in the 1960s, but now the phrase is mostly used as a term of derision.
No such
Old English did have a grammatical system similar to modern German, with feminine, masculine and neuter genders assigned to nouns. For instance, Germans refer to a dog with a masculine pronoun if they don’t know its gender. But the missing pronoun in modern English is not through lack of trying. English has seen over 100 attempts at a gender-neutral pronoun, but not one has survived.
AA Milne
An English author, best known for his children’s books about Winnie-the-Pooh.

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