Sweden adopts gender neutral pronoun

“Swedes are shaking up their language with a new gender-neutral pronoun. The pronoun, “hen,” allows speakers and writers to refer to a person without including reference to a person’s gender. This month, the pronoun made a big leap toward mainstream usage when it was added to the country’s National Encyclopedia.”

12 thoughts on “Sweden adopts gender neutral pronoun

  1. I would be greatful if we had a gender neutral pronoun (although I would resent being forced to use them exclusively). Ze & Zir are available to us, but nearly no one has heard of of those words, so they are pretty much useless.
    When I first heard of gender neutral pronouns I balked, but over the last couple of years I have felt the need for them.
    There have been numerous occasions over the last couple of years that I have wanted to discuss my spouse, without the listener being aware of my spouse’s gender, since it was not relevant to the conversation. And it would be such a blessing to be able to discuss trans issues without having to tip-toe around pronouns.

    If we were to adopt a gender neutral pronoun here, it would be very strange sounding at first, but I would readily welcome it if we did.

    Horray for Sweden.

  2. I’m really interested in seeing how this goes for Sweden. It seems to me like the key effort with such a change in the language would be to normalize the gender-neutral pronoun among young people. I’ve tried using words like ‘ze,’ ‘zir,’ and ‘hir’ before, and have failed miserably. In fact, I find the words so grating when I read them in text that I have to just skip over the words. I suspect that’s because I’m too old to learn such fundamental word changes. If I had been reading and speaking those words from the time I was in grade school, maybe it would be a different story.

    But I’m curious as to whether this is a common experience. I find it much, much easier to adopt the singular ‘they’ than to use these neologisms.

  3. I was going to say, Matt Drabek, that English already has a gender-neutral (or unmarked) pronoun: ‘they’.
    Yes, there is a certain amount of resistance to using it as semantically singular, but it seems likely that resistance to an ‘artificial’ pronoun (that is, introduced intentionally to solve a social problem) will be much greater. Is there much success, historically, in getting people to adopt new words intentionally introduced to solve social problems?

  4. I would be thrilled to use “they” but in any formal written setting the word is thrown back for being incorrect, so I have just quit trying to use it, even though I think it would solve a lot of my problems. I have even quit using it in casual comments on facebook & blogs like this one. Damn it, I want my word back.
    Can we convince the dictionary writers to let us have ‘they’. We can trade in the words tween & staycation for this useful one.

  5. I’m with you, tarabound (and Matt and Mark).

    But I exhort you not to be intimidated by copy editors! Insist on your word, especially when their reasons for changing it are so bad.

    The dictionaries are already coming around. Here is the American Heritage Dictionary entry for ‘they’. American Heritage is (I believe) the most prescriptive American dictionary, and it is already partly with us and coming around rapidly (look over the Usage Notes). Cite it against authoritarian copy editors!

    And here is a nice, thoughtful article (just touching on singular ‘they’ in the course of noting the difference between the way Fowler argued and the way later self-styled grammatical authorities did) by Geoff Nunberg, who is on (chair of?) the American Heritage usage panel and an important linguist (and also a good philosopher — he gave a great talk in the symposium on pejoratives at the San Francisco APA meetings).

    Anyway, I believe that if we just use singular ‘they’ as we feel it’s natural (Everyone should take off their coats when they arrive) rather than forcing it (President Obama knows they are in control of the situation), we shall prevail.

  6. I read the article, but cannot determine whether this is an all-around pronoun or the nominative case. Are there possessive and accusative ones?

  7. Fascinating. As a fiction writer, I invented gender neutral pronouns for one of my novels (concerning a hermaphroditic people): ‘che’ for the subjective (I felt that ‘e’ was too reminiscent of ‘he’); ‘en’ for the objective; and ‘ens’ for the possessive – not far off!

  8. Here’s a comment from Sweden. Use of the gender neutral “hen” has increased dramatically only in the last year, but it is not in general or everyday use. It is used mainly in writing. There is a clear generation gap; young people use it more. Almost all my students use it now. Regarding the question above from ChrisTS: “hen” is the nominative case. For possessive case an “s” is added, “hens”. There is no established form for the accusative.

  9. With regard to the legitimacy of the singular ‘they’: most people who have a problem with the singular ‘they’ take issue with it being gramatically plural (we say ‘they are’ even when ‘they’ picks out one person). However, this problem is shared with the singular ‘you’, which nobody is suggesting we remove from our lexicon.

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