The Swedish Language: Challenging the Traditional Gender Binary

In April 2015, Sweden made international headlines by including a third gender pronoun into the official dictionary of the Swedish language (SAOL). The gender-neutral ‘hen’, to be used alongside ‘han’ (he) and ‘hon’ (she), is used to refer to a person without revealing their gender, either as an anonymising tool when gender is unknown or irrelevant, or because a person wishes not to identify themselves within the traditional gender binary. The creation of a new, neutral pronoun where there previously was none carves out a place, linguistically and culturally, for individuals who were previously obscured by language.

The word ‘hen’ emerged within the queer community in Sweden at the turn of the century, but became the focus of a national debate in 2012, when the publication of a children’s book called Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monster-dog) by Jesper Lundqvist identified its protagonist as ‘hen’. A subsequent column (in Swedish) by Karin Milles in a prominent national newspaper celebrated the book and became the catalyst for intense societal debate about gender identities, the gender binary, and of ‘hen’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. The term was launched from obscurity, and quickly gained popularity. The Swedish Academy, announced its inclusion in SAOL in early 2015. In the face of huge media-attention, the editor-in chief of SAOL, Sven-Göran Malmgren, stated (in Swedish) that he was surprised by the quick breakthrough of ‘hen’, but that its frequent and widespread use earned it an “indisputable” place in the dictionary.

The heated debate over ‘hen’ of a few years ago now mainly exists in the comment sections of online articles and on social media. In print-media and in popular discourse, however, there seems to be little disagreement on the fact that ‘hen’ is here to stay. It is used frequently in daily newspapers and ad campaigns and has even been used in court rulings (in Swedish). ‘Hen’ no longer appears accompanied by an explanation for its use when it shows up in print-media, as was frequently the case when it first entered. The word, its definition, and by extension also the people who identify by using ‘hen’ are assumed to be understood by all readers. The gender-neutral pronoun has become a part of the Swedish national consciousness.

A flag promoting transgender rights during Stockholm Pride 2015 by Jonatan Svensson Glad

The wider implications of the gender-neutral pronoun are still unclear. Milles argues that the linguistic rejection of the gender binary is of symbolic importance, but it may also act as a catalyst for wider societal change. In the column that initiated the ‘hen’ revolution, she writes that “the manic and active differentiation of gender has negative consequences for both the individual and society, and a freer attitude without such strong gender indoctrination would lead to a better future. Inserting the word ‘hen’ into the language is part of that effort.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the Swedish openness to the gender neutral ‘hen’ has not been mirrored in its neighbouring countries (in Swedish). Although ‘hen’ has been debated in Norway to some success, the national council for language use has denied the term official recommendation, claiming it too controversial. In Denmark officials have likewise rejected the use of a third gender pronoun.

In English it is possible to identify a long list of pronouns to enter the public discourse alongside he and she. Inventive alternatives such as ‘xe’, ‘ze’, ‘e’ and ‘s/he’ have emerged and gained some limited traction. None seem to have stuck, for the simple reason, some have claimed, that “they look stupid.” While such comments do little to ease the challenges faced by the gender queer, they are indicative of the scepticism that runs through the pronoun debate. However, the last few years have seen the development of what might be deemed the most viable gender-neutral pronoun in English: the singular ‘they’.

The English ‘they’ and the Swedish ‘hen’ are, in a way, two sides of the same coin. They represent the two possible linguistic sourcing of a third gender pronoun. ‘Hen’ is a neologism, a new word altogether. ‘They’ is the repurposing of an already established word. For the Swedish, the route of the neologism has been successful – the gender-neutral hen has been well established within the discourse. In English, on the other hand, the reconfiguration of the singular ‘they’ is still causing much debate.

However, the repurposing of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral personal pronoun comes with its own difficulties. Singular ‘they’ goes against deep-rooted grammatical rules, which may work against its saturation into popular discourse. In a sense, it represents a linguistic appropriation of the plural they. Sceptics argue that while ‘they’ succeeds in its move away from gendered language, it results in a problem of linguistic ambiguity.

A symbol combining the male symbol, female symbol, and infinity sign

It is possible, though, that the opposition to singular ‘they’ is not grammatical or aesthetic, but ideational. Many still see the rejection of the gender binary as incomprehensible, and are therefore unlikely to support any additional pronouns no matter what they are.

Nonetheless, the limitations of traditional gender pronouns are being increasingly debated in most English-speaking countries. One surprising development has recently brought a lot of media attention to the issue: the American Dialect Society voted the pronoun ‘they’ the 2015 Word of the Year.

In a celebrated New York Times article, Amanda Hess writes – ‘if the intention behind a third gender pronoun is to break down the gender binary – ‘they’ ‘feels a little bit like a shortcut to acceptance. It represents a third option outside the binary, sure. But it doesn’t compel people to make mental room for a new word’. If Hess is looking for confirmation of the inadequacy of the gender binary, she might find just that in the success of the Swedish ‘hen.’

Third person pronouns have become an arena in which wider debates about gender and identity are being played out. The gender-neutral pronoun can carry implications that are of symbolic and real value to the people who choose to be identified by it. Whether ‘hen’, ‘they’, or ‘ze’, the official linguistic recognition of non-traditional pronouns can be a step towards a more open and accepting society where people of all genders, and indeed people of no gender, are respected and celebrated.

To learn more about how to use gender neutral pronouns in English, read this article.

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