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18 April, 2016

Is HEN here to stay?

On the 30th of November 1966, on a column of Uppsala Nya Tidning, Rolf Dunås wrote an article about what he considered a “vacuum” in the Swedish language. Whereas Finnish had a gender-neutral pronoun (hän), something similar was missing in Swedish. ”As for me” – claimed Dunås – “I dream that ”han” would go one step further in the vowel-scale and that ”hon” would go back two steps, to discover the double-gender word ”hen”.

The debate about a new, double-gender or gender-neutral pronoun is thus quite old. Mr Dunås was way ahead of his time. It took almost 50 years before the word entered the latest edition of the Swedish Vocabulary (April 2015), when finally “hen” was given the official seal of correctness by the Swedish Academy.

“Hen” can be used anytime you do not need to specify the gender, for example: “Om någon besöker Stockholm på vinter, märker hen att…” , “If someone visits Stockholm during the winter, he or she will notice that…”, or when referring to someone who belongs to the “third sex”, i.e. someone who does not want to be considered a man or a woman. Practical, no doubt. But the matter is not as simple as it seems…

Languages have always developed through mistakes, migration, contacts between different cultures, praxis, custom. “Hen” is something different. It comes out of a social and political debate where some politicians and scholars advocate it in the name of gender equality, while others consider it just a way to create a fashionable logo.

Statistics show that “hen” is mostly used by some scholars in the academic world, young bloggers, students and journalists to discuss social issues such as gender equality and feminism, whereas others, like the former publisher of Dagens Nyheter, Gunilla Herlitz, went as far as to forbid the use of hen in one the most read newspapers of the country. Or like Horance Engdahl, former secretary of the Swedish Academy, who called it a “silly phenomenon”. Hen has become a totem or a taboo.

But do speakers care? Apparently not. The use of “hen” in the spoken language is still limited and it has become more a sort of “social marker” rather than a necessity deeply felt by the speakers. So far, it is intensively used by a group of people, but its spread in the linguistic arena is still moderate.

Is hen here to stay? Only time will tell. Certainly, it shows a peculiar Swedish interest for some social issues, especially when it comes to gender equality. This ambition to have a more inclusive, gender-neutral language is of course remarkable, but we should not forget that languages run free. And if speakers do not feel the need to use a word, it will sooner or later get washed away.

Written by Alessandro Bassini

Originally from Italy, I have been living in Sweden for the last eight years. Translating Swedish novels is what I do for a living. Languages is not only my work, but also my passion. I believe that every language has some key-words that best express the culture of the place where it is spoken. A cultural map of the Swedish language is what I want to create with this blog.

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