Gender-neutral 'hen' makes its legal debut

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Gender-neutral 'hen' makes its legal debut

The controversial Swedish word "hen", proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun, has found its way into legal lingo after a court in northern Sweden used it in a verdict.


"Currently, the culprit is considered to be in breach of duty when hen neglects what a task requires," the Court of Appeals for northern Norrland wrote in a recent verdict.

"This is not political posturing," senior court councillor Hans Sundberg said.

"Nor are we trying to be politically correct."

"We thought that we needed a personal pronoun for third person singular that was gender neutral and that we could use when we are talking about people in general rather then referring to a specific person," Sundberg explained.

The Court of Appeals has not officially decided to use "hen" instead of the masculine "han" or feminine "hon". Instead, it was a style choice made by the officials working on that particular case, Sundberg underlined.

"To write 'he or she' in a text is clunky," he noted.

The "hen debate" took off in early 2012 when a children’s book author and her publishers wrote an op-ed about the need for a gender-neutral pronoun

'Swedish needs a gender-neutral pronoun'

They said that they had received a mixed bag of reactions to the new word.

"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," they wrote.

They also noted that were hen to gain currency in the Swedish language, it would not be the first time the language used a gender-neutral pronoun. Much like in French, the masculine pronoun in Sweden was previously used as a catch-all term.

"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."

The authors argued, however, that using the masculine pronoun as the norm was problematic, in particular when addressing children in the middle of exploring their identities.

Far from all reactions have been positive. Sweden's biggest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, banned the buzz word from its pages during the summer.

Others have seen it as a useful tool primarily in the written language.

The Green Party kept its party programme hen exclusive in September.

"It was natural for us to use gender-neutral language," party secretary Anders Wallner told the news agency AFP at the time.

"It's a modern way of writing in texts where you don't need to specify gender."

TT/The Local/at

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