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A Swedish solution to sexist pronouns

A gender-neutral pronoun from Sweden

Languages are adjusting their most basic words to reflect dramatic social changes

Languages are adjusting their most basic words to reflect dramatic social changes

Lane Greene | June/July 2019

Hen (hɛn)

1. he, she, they (pronoun)

Germans surely don’t feel Schadenfreude more than, say, the French. But sometimes there’s a real link between words and culture, especially when a word is invented to serve a cultural goal. Feminist Sweden provides a rare example of this. In 2012 a children’s book used hen as a gender-neutral pronoun and kicked off a nationwide debate about the word. In Swedish han is “he” and hon is “she” but the language had no neutral word for cases such as “If a student has a concern, ___ should ask the teacher.” In English, “he” is traditional but sexist; some see “they” as illogical. Swedes faced a similar problem, until hen offered a solution. As well as covering cases where gender is unknown or unimportant, hen can also be used by those who identify as neither male nor female.

Swedish newspapers have steadily adopted it: last year hen appeared once for every 133 uses of han and hon combined, which is astonishingly frequent for an invented pronoun. That one small step for the language may one day count as a giant one for humankind.