Swedes Clucking Over Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Regarding gender equality, Sweden is a very progressive place. Recently, some clothing stores have removed their “boys” and “girls” clothing departments and The Swedish Bowling Association plans to abolish the separate categories for men and women to make the sport more gender-neutral. In 2010, the World Economic Forum deemed Sweden the most gender-equal country on the globe.

Now they’re taking a step further towards gender-neutrality with the introduction and growing acceptance of the neutral pronoun hen.

A midway point between han (Swedish for he) and hon (she), hen was officially added to an online edition of the country’s National Encyclopedia earlier this year after being employed in recent years by linguists, journalists and writers such as Jesper Lundqvist in his gender-neutral children’s book. This is just one of many of the country’s efforts to raise children in a world free from gender stereotypes.

A recent flyer in Sweden featured a boy dressed as Spiderman pushing a pink baby carriage and a smiling blond girl riding on a pint-sized tractor. At school, children are encouraged to form ‘daddy, daddy, child’ and ‘mommy, mommy, child’ families alongside the traditional ‘mommy, daddy, child’ structure in play games like house.

While hen’s champions argue that the word is a useful and practical tool for writers, others have criticized its use for being too politically and ideologically motivated. Renowned Swedish author Jan Guillou dismissed it as being the tool of “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.” Other critics have pointed out that introducing a third, ambiguous word into the mix can be psychologically damaging for young children’s personal discovery of their own sexuality and gender.

Interestingly, I found no formal response or statement from Sweden’s transgendered community on their acceptance of the term. Since they are often marginalized by the gender binary, they are among those with the most to gain from the widespread use of a neutral pronoun.

Since the 1780s, linguists have struggled to come to an agreement on a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun in English. Many have been proposed over the years, though none have stuck in common parlance or academic literature. Notable suggestions have included e, hu, thon, ve, ze, and zhe. One of the major obstacles faced in this area is that the English language lacks a singular administrative authority that decides on and implements the use of new words.

While Sweden seems to be one of the first countries amending its language to include gender-neutrality, perhaps they could have looked to their neighbor Finland for an even more balanced approach: the Finnish language does not contain distinctive pronouns like he or she to connote gender.

Do you think English could benefit from its own gender-neutral pronoun, and if so, what is your best suggestion for the most plausible, natural choice??

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