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Gender-neutral pronoun debate rocks Sweden

Gender-neutral pronoun debate rocks Sweden

Published: 08 Oct 2012 09:18 GMT+02:00
Updated: 08 Oct 2012 09:18 GMT+02:00

Sweden's tradition of gender equality has famously put more mums in the workplace while rising numbers of dads stay at home. Now advocates have a new frontier: they're pushing for a gender-neutral pronoun, "hen", to be added to "han" (he) and "hon" (she).

"There's almost nothing left to do in the field of gender equality, so people are suggesting increasingly strange ideas," said independent journalist Elise Claesson, partly amused and partly irritated by the debate.

The word "hen" was coined in the 1960s when the ubiquitous use of "han" (he) became politically incorrect. It was about "simplifying the language" and avoiding the clumsy "han/hon" (s/he) construction, said linguist Karin Milles.

But the word never really took off.

It resurfaced around 2000, when the country's small transgender community latched onto it.

Then the publication this year of a children's book reignited the debate over the pronoun.

"Kivi och Monsterhund" (Kivi and the Monster Dog) uses "hen" exclusively, dispensing altogether with "han" and "hon".

Author Jesper Lundqvist said he wanted his book to address children in general, not little boys or little girls.

"Hen" is not meant to replace "he" and "she", supporters argue. Instead, it allows speakers to refer to a person without having to mention the gender if they don't know it, if the person is transgender, or if the information is considered irrelevant.

Swedish society "needs a third sex, a third position," Susanna Karlsson of the Language Council of Sweden told AFP.

However, she said: "But we have to keep 'he' and 'she' because these are categories that everyone uses to orient themselves. We want to know if a person is a man or a woman."

According to Milles, "hen" is a tool that "works to spread the idea of

gender equality."

Another linguist, Mikael Parkvall, is less convinced, however.

"The notion that language determines our way of thinking is very popular, but those of us who are specialists are pretty sceptical," he said.

"The link between language and thought is not very strong, and you don't become more gender equal by using a neutral pronoun," he added, citing Mandarin, the language of male-dominated China, as an example of a language

that has such a pronoun.

'Project for the intellectual elite'

It's difficult to predict whether "hen" will gain a large following in the Scandinavian country.

Sven-Göran Malmgren, editor of the Swedish Academy's authoritative dictionary, said he doesn't know of "a single example in the world where a pronoun that has

been invented has taken hold."

Whether "hen" will be included in the next edition of the dictionary in 2015 will depend on how widespread it becomes, Malmgren said.

For the moment, "hen" seems to be more of a fad.

"It's a project for the (intellectual) elite," Claesson said.

"A study conducted online by the Aftonbladet tabloid showed that 96 percent of people who took part don't use 'hen'," she said.

A small group "think that they can create an egalitarian society by manipulating different things. ... It gets a little exaggerated," she added.

Some Swedes say they've never even heard of the word. But the pronoun has taken a step onto the political stage: the Green Party, the country's third largest political formation, used only the "hen" pronoun in its party programme published in September.

"It was natural for us to use gender-neutral language," said party secretary Anders Wallner.

"It's a modern way of writing in texts where you don't need to specify gender, which happens quite a lot," he said.

Wallner said he believes "hen" will soon be as free of controversy as the 1970s decision to abolish the plural form for addressing strangers and instead use the more informal singular.

Swedish Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni, contacted by AFP, had no

comment on the "hen" debate.

Camille Bas-Wohlert

AFP/The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

11:15 October 8, 2012 by RosemarysBaby80
"There's almost nothing left to do in the field of gender equality, so people are suggesting increasingly strange ideas,"

Elise Claesson sounds like a wise woman.
11:24 October 8, 2012 by Opinionfool
And what happens when this book (and any others that follow its author's idiocy) are to be translated into other languages, languages that don't treat people as commodities by describing them as asexual things "hen" but rather have words that describe the clear and obvious physical difference between male and female? The experiment will fail not on the streets of Sweden and in the mouths of Swedes but instead on the desk of the hapless translator who has to deal with this nonsense.

Give it up. Celebrate that there are differences between the genders, all five of them, and don't force homogeneity upon us.
12:01 October 8, 2012 by ellie12
Sven-Göran Malmgren, editor of the Swedish Academy's authoritative dictionary, said he doesn't know of "a single example in the world where a pronoun that has

been invented has taken hold."

What about Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss. That has taken hold.
12:18 October 8, 2012 by entry
Tomorrow I will be nailing antlers to my head and on Thursday if I regain consciousness I will be demanding the Swedish govt. to recognize me as an Antelope-HEN!

While you eagerly wait for reports of my Progress:

The Gender-Neutral Kitten Salvation Happiness Fund

http://youtu.be/fHlkpzkqe3E
12:25 October 8, 2012 by byke
It would be ironic if the use of "hen" ended up on the chopping block.
13:26 October 8, 2012 by Lanthus Clark
So we are being reduced from men and women to mere chickens... great.

;^)
17:48 October 8, 2012 by Grokh
There is gender inequality in sweden when it comes to sallary, but instead of focusing on that these idiots come up with the "hen" crap .

it is not practical, it is not equality.

when talking to someone or even warning the police who commited a crime if i say hen instead of he or she how much trouble will that cause?

if they want to focus on gender equality they should focus on sallaries not on something as stupid and damaging as well as trivial as this Hen crap
18:25 October 8, 2012 by FotoGuy
Swedes are sick....I feel bad for their kids...they will obviously grow up super messed up. I know of parents that refuse to tell people if their kids are male of female (theres one such broad in my wifes mamagrupp) and dress their kids in colors that don't give away their sex. And they get pissed when u ask if it's a boy or a girl...citing that it "doesn't matter". It DOES matter...for example in the church...since the priests only like little boys, it would be confusing for them.
23:08 October 8, 2012 by David S
Well, like it or not, it's apparently taking hold. The other day two separate swedish friends of mine both used "hen" in normal conversation.
09:33 October 9, 2012 by Reason abd Realism
The use of all languages, written or spoken or in thought bubbles, should be banned within Sweden. Otherwise little Johnny who eats his peanut butter sandwiches in the corner of the school lunch room each day, might be offended by something said by someone at some point..
17:14 October 9, 2012 by kanjo
"There's almost nothing left to do in the field of gender equality, so people are suggesting increasingly strange ideas," This is a nice statement.

Most of the social changes are experiments, I really don't know where this experiment will end. For Gods sake let us all be equal but also embrace our differences and uniqueness. I really don't know how boring the world would be if every one behaves like ever one else. Its our differences that become our strength when the world embraces equality because every one gets to contribute some thing.
23:33 October 9, 2012 by Flutterbye
A'll hae a troch 'o roch, un a puck 'o richy peg hen !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
10:19 October 10, 2012 by rise
*sigh* If Sweden is going to be the country of hens we'll also need some roosters to defend us. I guess Bofors or some similar will be the one breeding the roosters.
20:21 October 10, 2012 by dizzymoe33
This is so stupid!!!!! Really Sweden get your head out of your butts!! The next step is to have all of our male and female body parts removed so we are no longer defined by them as well!!! This is just so very stupid!!!
20:33 October 10, 2012 by hackie
the most stupid idea of 21st century. Grow up you nutts.
21:21 October 10, 2012 by Pharazon
"There is gender inequality in sweden when it comes to sallary, but instead of focusing on that these idiots come up with the "hen" crap "

Men and women with the same job and same education have the SAME SALARY.

What they do is that they take ALL men and calculate the mean salary and then take all women and do the same calculation.

But since more men have high wage jobs like engineers and doctors while women work more in less paying jobs like health care and teaching (and also work far more part time) the final result is that there is a big difference.

But the difference is between the groups as a whole, not for the same jobs.
21:31 October 10, 2012 by frenchviking
some people really are under stimulated... do they have nothing better to do?

I hope that they are not paid by our tax money to come up with such useless ideas...
15:34 October 11, 2012 by Morden
for the love of Lucifer... cant this genderless nonsense get flushed down the toilets? this is going to far. we dont need this trash. political correctness/gender neutrality is going to far now why dont we just outright ban he/she while we are at it huh? I will not use this "hen" it sounds like 'im calling the person in question a chicken sheesh..
19:32 October 13, 2012 by Finnish guy
As a Finnish speaker, I agree that gender-neutral pronoun is often useful and avoids using clumsy constructs like he/she. However, I think that getting rid of grammatical gender would be even more useful for Swedish language. It is so difficult to remember if some word has common gender or neuter and that makes learning Swedish difficult.
09:25 November 13, 2012 by adiz0r
Why don't the Swedes who want to use hen just learn Hungarian instead? :) It doesn't have gender-specific pronouns at all, sometimes it's even a problem to phrase one's thoughts correctly, because it's confusing if s/he's talking about a man or a woman.

Come on guys, it's easy! Even my small children managed to learn it well. :)
17:13 November 18, 2012 by wakeupdummy
I believe English and Chinese are successful languages partly because they do not have gender specific pronouns. People can learn the words faster, have more confidence and communicate more accurately. Learning multiple languages also then becomes easier. Gender pronouns are such a waste of time and space when you should be concentrating on what is actually being said.
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