‘Swedish needs a gender-neutral pronoun’

The Swedish language is in need of a new pronoun free of preconceived notions about gender, argue a Swedish linguist along with representatives from a publishing house set to release a children's book featuring the word “hen” rather than “han” (he) or hon (she).

'Swedish needs a gender-neutral pronoun'

The Swedish words “hon” (she) and “han” (he) are loaded with preconceptions about characteristics and we see that language and the words we choose have a huge impact on how we experience the world.

The new gender-neutral Swedish word “hen” will open up for a freer interpretation by not being tied to these preconceptions.

Despite the fact that the book “Kivi & Monsterhund” (‘Kivi & Monster Dog’) hasn’t been published yet, we have already received a number of reactions.

Many are positive and curious.

Others feel that it is upsetting and threatening, as gender is seen as something important. It creates predictability and safety. It is perceived as problematic when someone breaches the expected gender roles and in many cases it leads to some sort of punishment.

In 2011, a young boy in Jönköping was attacked for wearing pink and nail polish, which are perceived as female attributes.

Today, “han” (he) is automatically used when we don’t know the gender of a character and old Swedish rules on writing dictate that “he” should be used when the sex is not known or is deemed irrelevant – which can be seen in many legal texts.

And there are all the children’s books where seemingly gender-neutral characters and animals almost always are male.

“He” becomes the norm and anyone who is supposed to be a “she” has to stand out by expressing her feminine attributes. A child who erroneously calls someone “he” is quickly corrected and learns that it is important to make a distinction between “he” and “she”.

We argue that this should be of secondary importance and that the active separation of the sexes has negative consequences for both individuals and society.

A more relaxed attitude with a less prominent gender indoctrination would lead to a better future. To bring the Swedish word “hen” into common usage is part of that work.

In “Kivi & Monster Dog”, it doesn’t matter if it is a he (han) or a she (hon); a gender-neutral “hen” can combine characteristics and attributes according to individual preferences, and in the long run lead to neither “he” nor “she” being so strictly tied rules on gender.

Hen” is therefore a solution that makes it possible to meet the world in a more unbiased way and to read a text or have a conversation where the focus is shifted away from gender identity to the personal characteristics of the individual.

A counter-argument could be that the word “hen” would mean that differences between the two gender roles are erased. But exactly what differences are important to keep?

Salary differences, the use of violence, the providing of care or the capacity for kindness?

We think everyone should be allowed to be different, regardless of sex. According to the latest reworking of Sweden’s laws on discrimination, one can now also claim to be discriminated against due to “cross gender identity and expression”, which also shows that the word “hen” is needed for those who are unable to identify with either gender.

By freeing the word “hen” from the expectations tied to traditional gender roles, readers are given a possibility to meet Kivi in a different way.

This is an exciting linguistic possibility! Why forfeit that chance?

We argue that “hen” is needed if an writers like Jesper Lundqvist, the author of “Kivi & Monster Dog”, wants to succeed in letting the character be evaluated from its individual characteristics and give all children the chance to identify with it.

Bringing in a new element that makes us think about how we use language allows for awareness and change which goes beyond any single word.

Using “hen” doesn’t mean we need to get rid of hon (she) and han (he).

Rather, it’s simply a matter of adding hen: to allow for three choices, instead of two.

Karin Milles, lecturer in Swedish, Södertörn University College

Karin Salmson, OLIKA Publishing Ltd

Marie Tomicic, OLIKA Publishing Ltd

This article was originally published in Swedish in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. Translation by The Local

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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.