Swedes are shaking up their language with a new gender-neutral pronoun. The pronoun, “hen,” allows speakers and writers to refer to a person without including reference to a person’s gender. This month, the pronoun made a big leap toward mainstream usage when it was added to the country’s National Encyclopedia.
The majority of world languages already have gender-neutral pronouns. However, similar to the English language, Swedish has had pronouns for “he” and “she”, but not one that refers to a person without suggesting the person’s sex. Proponents of “hen” are eager to have a single word that describes a hypothetical person rather than the awkward “he or she.” The word is also useful when referring to someone who does not identify with a traditional gender role.
“Hen” (pronounced like the English word for chicken) is a modified version of the Swedish words “han” and “hon,” which mean “he” and “she” respectively. The pronoun first emerged as a suggestion from Swedish linguists back to the 1960s. Though it has taken a while for the word to catch on, some Swedish magazines and even a children’s book have now adopted it in their texts.
When it comes to gender neutrality, Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world. Sweden has the highest percentage of working women, the Swedish Bowling Association is moving toward having men and women compete in the same events, clothing stores do not always have separate sections for male and female attire, and there is even a preschool dedicated to eliminating gender.
Despite all of the ways Sweden deconstructs notions of gender, language has been slower to catch up, still readily identifying people as either male or female. As it stands, Sweden has regulations over what parents can name their children, with most of the choices being specifically for one gender. Only 170 unisex names are permitted. Recently, activists have been pushing the government to allow parents to choose a name for their kids regardless of gender.
Of course, there are plenty of Swedes opposed to these changes. Swedish author Jan Guillou attributes the popularity of “hen” to “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.” Overall, many critics fail to see the reason for a gender-neutral pronoun when the country already takes so many steps to ensure both genders are equal.
However, fans of “hen” believe that true equality cannot be reached without gender neutrality. As long as the distinction is made, they argue, it reaffirms differences between male and female and perpetuates stereotypes. When speaking about a person, it is easy to avoid mentioning that person’s age, ethnicity and sexuality, yet existing conventions of language often forces people to label the same person a he or a she throughout the course of a conversation.
The push to make “hen” mainstream could face challenges. Even for those sympathetic to the plight, after a lifetime of saying “han” and “hon,” switching to “hen” requires breaking a force of habit. Still, even if the majority do not adopt “hen” into their everyday speech, having an accepted alternative available is yet another step toward Swedish gender-neutrality.