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Hen: What a three-letter word tells us about Swedish culture

The Swedish language is no stranger to new words, whether they're foreign language imports ("najs") or neologisms created to refer to new or topical concepts ("flygskam"). But one three-letter word has stirred up more controversy than most, and that's "hen".

Hen: What a three-letter word tells us about Swedish culture
The pronoun 'hen' replaces 'he or she' and can also be used to refer to non-binary people. Photo: Henrik Trygg/
Hen is Sweden’s gender-neutral personal pronoun, which means it replaces hon (she) and/or han (he) when referring to a person of non-binary gender, or in a context where their gender is unknown or irrelevant.

It’s used in the same way as hon and han in contexts where the speaker or writer would otherwise need an alternative phrasing such as hon eller han (he or she) or kunden/studenten (the customer/student). An English-language equivalent is single-person “they”, and there’s an even closer equivalent in Finnish: hän, which has been used in this way since the 16th century and even features in the earliest printed book in the language.

Swedish hen is a much newer creation.

Language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt is the first person to be reported as using the word, as far back as the 1950s; he was familiar with Finnish, so it’s likely he took inspiration from the neighbouring country’s language (despite few lingustic crossovers between Finnish and Swedish).

Another linguist, Rolf Dunås, wrote a newspaper article proposing the introduction of hen in 1966, and this was the pronoun’s first documented appearance in writing.

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY: Learn Swedish every day with The Local

For the next generation, its usage was confined to small circles, particularly those which focused on LGBT issues and gender expression. One example was the queer magazine Ful, which used hen from its very first issue in 2008. 

The pronoun re-entered mainstream discourse only in 2012, when Olika förlag, a publishing company specialising in promoting “non-traditional” stories, released children’s book Kivi och monsterhund (Kivi and monster dog) by Jesper Lundqvist.

The book attracted plenty of media attention thanks to its exclusive use of the pronoun hen to refer to its characters, and helped bring the debate over gender-neutral pronouns to the national level.

Since then, linguistic records show that its use has soared.

Hen was first used in a Swedish court verdict in 2012. The following year hen made its debut in parliament, with the Minister of Gender Equality the first to use it, and the three-letter word entered the Swedish Academy’s dictionary in 2015.

Back in 2012 when Kivi och monsterhund was published, hen was only used once in print for every 13,000 uses of han or hon, a ratio which dropped dramatically to once for every 416 the following year. In 2018, hen was used once for every 133 uses of han or hon.

This is actually rather remarkable. 

Author Jesper Lundqvist with his norm-challenging book. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

While the Swedish language, like most living languages, consistently grows and changes, there have been no new pronouns in centuries.

Pronouns are usually considered a closed class, along with determiners (such as ett and en, meaning “a”), conjunctions (such as och, men and eftersom, meaning “and”, “but” and “because”), and prepositions (such as i and , meaning “in” and “on”), in contrast to open word classes such as verbs, nouns and adjectives, which can readily accept new additions. 

Hen was able to successfully integrate into the Swedish language thanks to a few points in its favour.

Firstly, pure practicality. Hen is morphologically (structurally) similar to the existing han and hon, so it sounds and looks natural in Swedish texts and writers instinctively know how to use it. And while it’s rare for a new pronoun to be created, this is a category of words which is used very frequently, meaning that high repetition boosted hen‘s chances of survival.

It also serves a clear purpose. When it first appeared in a legal verdict, a court councillor explained that the reason for the decision was that “writing ‘he or she’ in a text is clunky”.  

READ ALSO: Six myths about the Swedish language (and why they’re untrue)

Although Sweden has two grammatical genders (en words and ett words), these don’t correspond to actual gender. For example, en man and en kvinna are both en words, and the words den or det (both meaning “it”) refer to objects, but never to people.

So hen fills a gap in the lexicon, which meant it had a better chance of survival; when words disappear from use, it’s often because they’re competing with synonyms, or because there’s overlap between what two words mean, and eventually one of the two becomes used in all contexts while the other falls out of favour.

Cultural developments are also a factor, and arguably the decisive one. As noted, linguists were proposing the use of hen back in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s only over the past ten years that it has reached mainstream consciousness. 

Two men kiss at a Gothenburg Pride parade. Photo: Sofia Sabel/

This coincides with greater discussion about gender norms in Sweden and in society more widely, as well as more and more scientific research which shows gender is not binary. Using hen gives writers a neat alternative to defaulting to the masculine han, and it can also be used to refer to people who do not identify with either traditional gender.

Changes in society are reflected in our language; in 2015, the words icke-binär (non-binary) and cisperson (cisgender person, meaning someone who identifies with the gender they are assigned at birth) were included on the annual “new words list” collated by expert linguists.

Some Swedish preschools have begun to avoid gendered pronouns and making efforts to avoid gendered behaviour. In 2014, the male-dominated builders union Byggnads began using hen in its statutes. And one of Sweden’s major teaching unions has guidelines for educational professionals to follow in the usage of hen

READ ALSO: Swedish church defends gender neutral pronoun for Jesus

The Swedish language has undergone other significant changes in order to reflect those already taking place in society. The obvious example is the “Du reform” of the 1960s, when Sweden overhauled its form of address.

Previously, the pronoun du (“you”) was used only to address children, siblings and close friends, or in other extremely informal contexts with no status difference. Elsewhere, there was a rather complex system which involved referring to people in the third person and by their title. This meant saying things like “I hope the manager has a nice weekend” or “Please could the accountant send the documents over?” when speaking to the person in question, and using the titles herr, fru and fröken (Mr, Mrs and Miss) if the person’s title or rank was unknown.

In the early 1900s, attempts were made to adopt ni (plural “you”) as the formal term of address in parallel to French vous (meaning both plural “you” and formal singular “you”) and German Sie (meaning formal “you”). But this never quite took off, and many people instead interpreted ni as a rude implication that the addressee’s rank was not important.

Sweden’s working culture is typically informal. Photo: Lena Granefelt/

By the 1950s and 1960s, growing liberalisation provided the appropriate background for the change to du, which began with newspapers such as Dagens Nyheter adopting the term in their style guides, and was spurred along by high-profile figures using the term, not least Prime Minister Olof Palme who, after his appointment in 1969, asked reporters to address him as du.

These days, the lack of formality in the language and especially the use of first names and du even with managers is something that strikes many newcomers to Sweden. It reflects – or perhaps even encourages – typically informal working cultures. 

READ ALSO: Children at Sweden’s gender-neutral preschools more likely to play with both boys and girls

Language is an evolving organism, and it’s defined by how people use it rather than any rules imposed from above. So it makes sense that in order for a language change to take root, it needs to reflect its society.

study from researchers at Lund University analysed Swedes’ feelings about hen. Although the majority of people surveyed said they never used the pronoun, the survey showed that Swedes who live in big cities, were aged under 26, and had a university education, were most positive towards hen and most likely to use it often. 

Hen does have its critics, and these are on average more likely to be older people who live in the country and have more conservative political views, according to the same study.

These critics usually see it as a loaded and political term, and even the Swedish Language Council in its usage recommendations notes that its usage could “draw attention away from the text”. Because of this potential risk, it suggests that writers “determine whether the word is appropriate or not in the context of the writer, the situation and the recipients”, although it does state that hen should always be used to refer to someone who prefers it to hon or han.

Whether hen becomes truly mainstream remains to be seen, but it is a clear example of how language can change in order to keep up with a changing world. 

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What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.