The still hotly debated pronoun is set to enter the language from 2015
Sara Ahmed Abdel Aziz
Set to officially enter the Swedish dictionary in 2015, controversial gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ is still being met by heavy debate.
Commonly used when the sex of a person is unknown, some find the word useful, while critics claim the pronoun simply masks social inequalities.
The pronoun, which was coined in 1994 by linguist Hans Karlgren, gained momentum in highly-egalitarian Sweden in 2012, after it was used throughout a children’s book starring a dog of unspecified gender.
Gender equality lingo
Its use is most notable in the country’s ‘gender equal’ progressive preschools, where children are addressed by first name, ‘friends’ or simply ‘hen’, as a mean to combat gender stereotypes.
“We try to abandon he and she when we are talking,’’ says Lotta Rajalin, director of Nikolaigarden, a preschool in Stockholm that prioritizes gender equality.
‘’With children, if you say ‘hen’, children can use their imagination to figure out the gender. Of course a word doesn’t make you equal, we make a change and that makes a difference,’’ she added.
Other than being used as a linguistic tool of simplification, the word is perceived as being inclusive of the queer community, since it takes into consideration individuals who do not identify as either male or female.
‘’It is probably most used by people who take awareness of gender issues. It’s good to have a third category not only for those who can’t identify but also for us to use it instead of constantly pinpointing the gender,’’ said Magnus Jacobson, a communications strategist at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions.
‘’Hen allows us not to differentiate between men and women,’’ he added.
However, not all perceive the personal pronoun as positive.
Masking biological differences
A leading Swedish gender equality expert, Kajsa Wahlström believes the word is unnecessary and upsetting.
‘’We have other words, why should we use ‘hen’? I don’t think we need it, we think we are equal but still there are expectations. It matters in terms of gender because it makes people invisible, ‘’ said Wahlström.
She also believes that it goes against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that each child is entitled to a name and an identity.
Wahlström argues that ‘she’ and ‘he’ reflect the biological differences harmlessly and thus shouldn’t be discarded.
“In one way it’s not important. Why is it wrong if I know if it’s a man or a woman because I have different expectations? But it’s like a fence, you’re hiding something. It’s about meeting each other in an equal way, not about hiding,‘’ added Wahlström, referring to the gender inequalities she believes remains ingrained in society
‘Hen’ is due to be added in the Swedish Academy’s glossary as of April 2015.