“Hen” said, “hen” said

Apr 15, 2012 by

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.


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  • Of course, gender isn’t the only important difference that pronouns don’t always represent.  See Douglas Hofstadter’s essay A Person Paper on Purity in Language.

  • Séamus Mac Conmidhe

    In Irish Gaelic we use the singular 2nd person pronoun, “tú”, for everyone. Until the early 20th century (and sometimes still, but very archaic now), however, the plural 2nd person “sibh” was used when addressing a Catholic Priest as a particular mark of respect. Folk etymology explains the use of the plural as an acknowledgement of the divine presence in the sacrament carried by the cleric. This can be seen in Ulster Irish literature from the period. This was probably the last vestige of honorific use of plural 2nd person pronoun. as  Irish speakers would not have had much opportunity to address high status persons in their own language since their own nobility was defeated by the English and fled the country in the 1600s. However, in Scotland Gaelic speakers still use “sibh” as a remark of respect, reserving “tu” for familiar use. This is likely due to a continued presence of Gaelic speaking gentry and landowners in Scotland. We Irish Gaelic speakers can come across as being overfamiliar and casual when we attempt to speak Scottish Gaelic in Scotland since we usually forget to say “sibh” instead of “tú” (or “thu” as the Scots say) when speaking to strangers.

    I’m learning Welsh now and from my textbooks it seems that the Welsh also use the plural as a mark of respect. However, in Britanny, native speakers of Breton often use the familiar “tu” in French where “vous” would be more appropriate, under the influence of Breton.

    • Thanks for sharing all this information, Seamus! I doubt, though, that the use of the plural form to address a priest has anything to do with the divine presence, as it is far too common across languages.

      • Séamus Mac Conmidhe

        Yes, absolutely. The explanation was no doubt invented to explain the vestigial use of the plural pronoun as people forgot that their ancestors would have used it as a mark of respect to their Gaelic-speaking lords and chiefs, a usage that continued in Scotland due to some Gaelic-speaking aristocracy remaining. When the Gaelic aristocracy dissolved there remained only the Gaelic proletariat peasantry. It is interesting how this is mirrored in the Brythonic languages. There remained a Welsh-speaking aristocracy, to a certain extent, under the English, but the Breton aristocracy were either extinguished by or subsumed within the new French elite. Thus Welsh uses the formal plural but Breton addresses all with the singular, despite the two languages being very closely related.

        It is interesting also to note that the archaic familiar English “thee” and “thou” survive in northern English dialects in regions where the iconoclastic puritan Protestant sects of the 15th and 17th centuries flourished. These included the Quakers who refused to address anyone with “ye/you” and would not doff their hats, to emphasise social equality. Elsewhere in the English speaking world the previously formal “you” is now the norm even with intimates.

  • Dezmaz

    My understanding was that the aim is to *add* the new pronoun to enable genderless reference where appropriate (ie when the sex of an individual is unknown) rather than to replace the gendered pronouns, much as how in English singular ‘they’ is commonly used in such circumstances.

    • With the difference that “they” is not the same in number, whereas “hen” is supposed to be.

  • Ivan Derzhanski

    Somehow it seems to me that forcibly introducing a structural change into a closed class such as personal pronouns (eg inventing a new gender-neutral pronoun for use in a language whose pronouns are naturally gendered) is a much more serious intervention than suggesting a change in the use of open-class words (_madame_ and _mademoiselle_), or even of the registers of personal pronouns (the Swedish _du_ affair).

  • The article was really interesting for me, because I think adversely for Turkish about a need of gender distinction in the third singular pronoun. We have only one pronoun for that: “O”. When we talk about any person who is not together with us, we say “O”,  then the person addressed has to ask whether that female or male is. I do not know what my colleagues think about it, but gender distinction is necessary for 3rd singular pronoun in my opininon. One pronoun is easy to use grammatically but it absolutely leads people to misunderstanding or to being curious unnecessarily.
    And I agree with author’s opinion that neutral pronoun does not provide people with gender equality unfortunately…

  • I’ve read several articles on the ‘Hen’ thing, and it seems to be a Swedish feminist experiment to attempt to achieve ultimate gender equality. I’ve studied enough Persian to know that it, too, lacks a gender based third-person pronoun – one simply says او (he, she, or it) or آنها (they). And yet nobody would say that Iran is a gender neutral society, nor are Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the two other countries that have dialects of Persian as their national language…

  • Helena Kallio

    …and here’s what they’re up to in Finland:

    Finnish language has only one 3rd person pronoun – the gender-neutral “hän”.

    In June 2012 a new translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses was published. The translator has used a 3rd person pronoun “hen” as an equivalent of the English “she”. What-should-be-gender-neutral “hän” is used only to describe men. The word “hen” was already introduced in 1926 and again in the 90’s to raise discussion if Finnish should make the difference between masculine and feminine but I’ve never actually seen it used before.
    I find it interesting that Swedish and Finnish are both coming up with “hen” but for completely different reasons. As a Finnish native speaker I’m happy with the way things are because it makes the life simpler (and keeps them guessing if it’s a boy or a girl).

    When it comes to the usage of “hän”, you rarely hear anyone saying that. Most people refer to others by using “se” which is the same as “it” in English. It’s not polite but not considered rude either. However, this doesn’t apply in written text or the news.

  • Anders Persson

    As a swede I have to say that hen isn’t introduced with the purpose of replace hon and han, but to be used as an alternative!

    • Thank you for your comment, Anders! What I meant is that “hen” will replace gendered pronouns in use, not in grammar — every time one uses “hen” it is instead of “hon”/”han”… Hope that’s clearer now.

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        But it would have to replace them in grammar as well.  Having both a set of gendered personal pronouns *and* a genderless one is not the way languages (natural human languages, that is) work.  Which leads me to the thought (a prediction, if you wish) that a language on which an attempt is made to artificially impose such a system won’t tolerate it, and will either reject the innovation or make a complete move to a gender-free system.

        • I am not sure why this should be an intolerable system. Languages are plenty of underspecified forms…

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            I’m not sure either, but I’m strongly inclined to think that it wouldn’t be viable, because I haven’t seen its like anywhere, and I’ve seen the personal pronoun systems of very many languages.

          • What about other properties though: number, tense, evidentiality?… You name it. I think underspecification is everywhere.

  • Ben

    Two years too late, but still…

    I am not a linguist by any means, but gendered pronouns and grammatical gender are not the same thing. English, f.ex. has gendered pronouns (he, she), but no grammatical gender, whereas the Scandinavian Languages (and German, amongst others) have both. No one’s proposing getting rid of grammatical gender, that’d just be completely unnecessary, as grammatical gender doesn’t load the word with (human) “feminine” or “masculine” qualities – they’re simply artefacts of some ancient cognitive distinction.
    Furthermore, no one’s talking about *getting rid* of “han” or “hon”, “hen” must be viewed as a supplement or complement to the traditonal gendered pronouns, to be used in situations where gender isn’t perceived to be of importance – much like the English use of singular “they”.

  • Sofia Kristoffersen

    The word “hen” was not introduced as a replacement of the gener specific “han” and “hon”, but rather as a third alternative, as in many other languages. We use the word when we don’t know the gender of the person we are talking about, or when we don’t want to ascribe stereotypical qualities/attributes to a person. It is therefore used frequently in politics, media and in academia. It is a very useful word, since it is rather annojing having to say “he”/”she” repeatedly throughout a conversation. The word was, of course, not thought of as the single tool to combat gender (difference), gender, surely, has a more elaborated system than that in the society, relying on more than the two gender specific pronouns. However, it does makes it easier not to talk of things in a gender stereotypical way, which was it’s purpose from the very beginning. But, the history of “hen” is not written, and we don’t know whether it will survive or what future role it might take on, and neither are the practices of gender. (regards from Sweden)

    • Thank you for sharing this, Sofia! What I meant by “replacement” is that whenever “hen” is used, it is used IN PLACE of “han” or “hon” (and not alongside it, for example, which would defeat the purpose of course). It will be interesting to see how this “hen” develops.

    • Ivan Derzhanski

      `The word “hen” was not introduced as a replacement of the gener
      specific “han” and “hon”, but rather as a third alternative, as in many
      other languages.’ — Out of curiosity, as in how many other languages?

      • Sofia Kristoffersen

        I’m not an expert in world languages, or Language for that matter. But from what I have heared there are apporx. 6 000- 7 000 languages, so doubt Sweden would be alone in having a third neutral pronoun. In fact, when I studied with international students from Asia, I heard that some languages in there also have a similar word as our “hen”. I don’t remember which, maybe from Hongkong or Philippines…or was it Korea? I don’t remember. It was just a topic that came up during conversations. This article just interested me since it was about my (small) nation. And I thought that the overal impression of the topic is rather pesimitic. In my personal opinion, one/ “hen” should not compare our case with other languages that have the tradition of gender “neutral” grammar. But since we have not, the word might be more useful. So “hen” might become as succesfull as when we started using “du”, or it might lose its affect or die-out. But because of the political situation in our country right now, I doubt the latter. However, the word has to be used in conjuntion with other practices in the society. My point is that, we did not introduce the word to replace “han” or “hon”. Furthermore, I doubt anyone believe that Sweden will become a country without gender! However, it is about working with STEREOTYPES. It is about giving a tool so to talk about things without giving emphasis on social classification.

        • Ivan Derzhanski

          It is true that there are that many languages in the world, but this is not in itself a reason to state that any feature that we might think of (especially one that has been constructed artificially) exists in many languages—there are many things that occur very seldom, or not at all. I know of many languages that have a `han’ and a `hon’ but no `hen’ (and employ one of the gendered pronouns as the default if the sex of the referent is unknown), and I know of many languages that have a `hen’ but no `han’ or `hon’ (these include Cantonese, Tagalog and Korean, the principal languages of the countries you named), but I believe that languages having all of `han’, `hon’ and `hen’ at the same time are extremely rare on earth. I may be wrong, but then I’d like to be proven wrong.

          • As far as I know, you are correct, Ivan: languages either have gender (“han”/”hon” distinction) or they don’t (as is indeed the case in Cantonese, Tagalog, and Korean). As far as I know, no languages have both “sexed” and “sexless” pronouns.

            N.B. Many languages do have a sort of “sexless” pronoun alongside personal pronouns, but it typically has an arbitrary interpretation (cf. French “on”, Italian “si” etc.).

        • Dear Sofia, the fact that there are almost 7000 languages doesn’t mean that these languages instantiate every imaginable possibility. It has been the greatest discovery of modern linguistics that there are certain boundaries to what human languages (spoken now or ever in the past or will ever be spoken in the future) can be. Aka “Universal Grammar”.

          The commentary on “hen” is mostly a social rather than linguistic commentary, just as the pronoun itself and the decision to introduce it are social rather than linguistic phenomena. See also my reply to Ivan below.