“Hen” said, “hen” said
In many Western countries concerns are raised about gender-specific language. The French hurry to get rid of mademoiselle. The Swedes are not far behind in wanting to get rid of ‘him’ and ‘her’. It has been proposed to replace the gender-specific pronouns han ‘he’ and hon ‘she’ with the gender-neutral counterpart hen, which has now been added to the online version of Sweden’s National Encyclopedia. According to an article in The Globe and Mail, the gender-neutral pronoun was first noticed by Swedish linguists decades ago, and in 1994 a Swedish linguist put forward the idea of using it to replace ‘he’ and ‘she’, so as to have a single word that “enables us to speak of a person without specifying their gender”. However, if this proposal goes through, there will be no way to specify a person’s gender!
Replacing gendered pronouns with a gender-neutral one is only a small part of Sweden’s push to experiment with gender-neutrality and to get rid of gender-roles. As Slate reports, the Swedish Bowling Association plans to combine male and female tournaments to make the sport gender-neutral. Some of the country’s politicians have even put forward the idea of gender-neutral washrooms to avoid forcing people to identify as male or female. While Sweden’s efforts at gender-neutral language may be mimicking the ways of their eastern neighbors, the Finns, it is hardly the case that the absence of grammatical gender in a language correlates with gender equality, lack of gender roles, or the like. This can be easily ascertained from the map above, which depicts the geographical distribution of languages with no grammatical gender. Thus, languages lacking a grammatical gender distinction include Turkish, Persian (Farsi), and Indonesian, none of which are spoken — and are official — in countries known for their gender equality.
Nor is this the first experiment with pronouns in Sweden. As discussed in detail in a fascinating little book by Torbjorn Lundmark Tales of Hi and Bye, the Swedes have already dispensed with ‘you’. Originally, Swedish had two 2nd person pronouns: familiar du and formal/polite ni. The former was used to address your siblings, close relatives, schoolmates, and the latter was used for people you didn’t know, someone older than you, your superiors, your teacher, doctor, boss. However, in time addressing people by the formal ni was replaced by addresses according to who they were, much the same way we address a judge as Your honor rather than you in English. Because of how widespread that usage became, ni became reserved for “people who did not have a profession, who had no job, no title, no position, no status, no relation, and whose name you didn’t know or didn’t care to know. In short, ni was for nobodies.” (Lundmark, p. 163). Because of the stigma now associated with ni and the egalitarian spirit that so characterizes Sweden, du has been officially made (by the government, no less!) a universal form of address. Nonetheless, it still carries some “pally” flavor and using it might be perceived as too familiar, for example, in retail situations. As a result, Swedes often omit the form of address altogether.
« The Pirahã Controversy: Numbers (part 3)
Syntactic feature or scribal convention? »