Hen – the scary pronoun

There is a new pronoun in town! By new I mean it’s been around since the 60’s, and the town in question is the Swedish language. The pronoun is the gender neutral hen, and its recent rise to fame has sparked the so called hen debate. Let me tell you more about hen.

Hen is pronounced exactly like the English word hen, but it does not mean feathery egg bringer, it means both he and she (or neither, depending on how you look at it). It is to be used when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re talking about, when the person in question doesn’t define themselves as male or female, or simply whenever you feel like it. It may be useful in linguistically erasing the man as the norm, or remove the tendency to always call an unknown doctor he, and an unknown nurse she. Although it’s been around for a while it has only recently come to public attention, partly due to a 2012 children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund, which consistently uses gender neutral language.

Hen is a very misunderstood pronoun. In this article it is suggested that hen is meant replace han and hon, he and she, completely. This is a misconception shared by many Swedes. There seems to be this idea that a political force, perchance based in feminism, is trying to linguistically force a gender neutral agenda on people. This is what has sparked the violent opposition to the word, and consequently the entire hen debate. Now of course hen is quite popular within feminist circles, and of course it could replace he and she if that is how people choose to use it, but the entire discussion shows quite clearly that people don’t understand how languages work. It often sounds as if there was a new law dictating which pronouns people can and can’t use. In reality it’s just a (to most people) new word that has gained some popularity.

As a linguist I find the entire thing fascinating. And quite ridiculous. Language can of course be political, but apart from having certain guidelines within public authorities and privately owned companies it is quite hard to actually change how people use language. People will speak as they please. Don’t like hen? Go ahead and use the old pronouns only. Love hen? Feel free to replace every single pronoun with it. Both of these approaches have their own problems, as the first one may hurt or offend someone who prefers a gender neutral pronoun for themselves and the second as it will severely breach Grice’s maxim of manner, but it’s completely up to you how you choose to express yourself.

From a feminist point of view it is interesting to observe how genuinely scared some people seem at the thought of not being obviously gendered at every turn. At the same time they don’t min being called du (you), or being part of de (they), both gender neutral. In fact, all the other pronouns are gender neutral. For some reason third person singular is very sensitive though.

However, the most ridiculous thing about the “debate” must be the actual arguments against this word. Let me list them for you.

  • Hen means hen in English. As in poultry. Just like barn (child or children) means barn in English, kock (chef) distinctly sounds like a certain penis word and sex (six) not only means sex in English, it also means sex in Swedish! (It’s a homonym.)
  • It will confuse the children. Just like the gender neutral words sibling and parent do.
  • It’s an invented word. Like every other word.
  • It sounds ugly.

These are the reasons not to use hen. It will be confusing for English speakers and children, it’s made up by humans and it’s ugly. I do not feel entirely convinced. Neither am I completely sure what those opposing the word want. Do they want to prohibit others from using it? How are they going to do that? This is why the entire idea of the debate is ridiculous. There is a new word. It is useful I many ways. Some Swedish speakers will use it, and people will understand what the word means, even if they choose not to use it themselves. Ta-dah! It’s a Swedish word, and no debate is going to change that. That’s simply how languages work.

I do not harbour strong feelings for this word. I like it. It’s practical and inclusive. My strongest emotion surrounding it is amusement at the inexplicable fear, anger and hate it inspires in people. This is not a post trying to convince anyone to use gender neutral language. It is merely a post poking fun at these irrational overreactions to language change. Then again, language change has always terrified people, and when connected to feminism I suppose it’s only natural that complete and utter terror will grip the nation.

What are your thoughts feelings on gender neutral language? Do you or would you use it? Why, or why not?


2 thoughts on “Hen – the scary pronoun

  1. i support a gender neutral language because it may contribute towards a less patriarchic society. I don’t feel comfortable when the default pronoun to be used is ‘he’ (unless in special cases, i.e. the nurse example you mention). Especially disturbing is the application of gender based pronouns based on profession or perceived qualification to speak (i.e. higher respect)… anyway, that’s a long story :)

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