Hen: Swedish Gender Neutral Pronoun

Slate has an article on Sweden’s “new” gender neutral pronoun. Hen can be used when one wishes to avoid han (he) and hon (she).

First a couple of comments about the journalistic style. For one thing, the headline gets it wrong. There is nothing “new” about the pronoun. Right there in the article it says that the word has been floating around the edges of Swedish for half a century. Second, the lede is buried. If the article is about the pronoun, as the headline suggests, why is it not mentioned until paragraph five, after discussing how the Swedish Bowling Association promotes gender equality? It turns out the article really isn’t about the pronoun; it’s about the politics of gender equality in Sweden, which is a perfectly fine topic, but in that case have the headline emphasize that and not the linguistic angle.

It is good to see, however, that idiotic language commentary is not confined to Anglophones. Whatever your opinion of the advisability of hen might be, the addition of the pronoun won’t destroy the Swedish language or confuse children about sexuality, as some quoted in the article suggest. Both language and kid’s brains are resilient and highly adaptable. They both will weather this tempest just fine.

Will the pronoun succeed? It’s unlikely. Structural words, like pronouns, articles, and conjunctions, are the most resistant to change. The last time English added a pronoun was she in twelfth century, and even that was just a shift in pronunciation of the Old English sio, not the wholesale adoption of a new word, and as the article notes, hen has been around since the 1960s and really been nothing more than a curiosity. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs invade and rampage through the language like marauding Huns, but pronouns, conjunctions, articles, and prepositions are bulwarks against the raging hordes of lexical fashion. A major push to get Swedes to start using hen might have an impact, but probably not. It’ll be easier to revolutionize bowling.

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