Sweden, Others Adopting Gender Neutral Pronouns

At two Stockholm nurseries in 2012, a new word was introduced into the Swedish language.  The word was “hen”, the new Swedish gender-neutral pronoun that is frequently used by children and adults, and now other European countries are joining in on the gender neutrality trend, reports Elisabeth Braw writing for Newsweek.

“Fourteen major retailers have made changes since we started our campaign almost two years ago,” reports Tricia Lowther, a mother-of-one in northern England and a member of the Let Toys Be Toys initiative, which lobbies for gender-neutral toy aisles. “They’ve taken down boys’ and girls’ signs. The blue and pink aisles remain, but things are happening.”

An initiative called Breaking the Mold has been launched by the National Union of Teachers to address gender stereotypes in primary schools. One British retailer has begun to make its toys’ labeling gender-neutral, and Norway, Canada, and Australia are calling for an end to boys’ and girls’  signage in toy shops. Still, Sweden is at the head of the class where gender neutrality is concerned. Several new children’s books in Sweden have a gender-neutral protagonist.

“They’re putting a lot of effort into avoiding words like boys and girls, instead just saying ‘children’. And norm critique is growing extremely fast.” Maria Hulth, a gender equality consultant, reports that her own two children routinely use hen with each other.

In 2015, the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” is being added to the new Swedish dictionary, which is assembled by the country’s Academy, reports RT News. The editor-in-chief of the Academy says that debate over adding the word went on for a few years.

“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a fad,” Sven-Göran Malmgren told Sveriges Radio.

“But now it’s quite simple. It is a word which is in use and it is a word which, without a doubt, fulfills a function,” he added.

The Academy says that there are older people in rural areas who do not like the word. In fact, the word may be the most controversial in history.

A majority of the world’s languages already have gender-neutral pronouns, but, just like the English language, Swedish had no such pronoun. Supporters of “hen” want to have a single word that describes a hypothetical person, or someone who does not identify with a traditional gender stereotypes, according to Kevin Matthews of Care 2.

“Hen” is a combination of the Swedish words for “he” and “she”.  The word was suggested by Swedish linguists back in the 1960s. Although Sweden is extremely progressive, Sweden has regulations over what parents can name their children.  Only 170 unisex names are allowed.

Vancouver has a new policy in place that allows schools to take a stand for transgender children. The words “he” and “she” are replaced by the more gender neutral “xe” (pronounced “zee”).  Many parents were upset by the decision and claimed that the change would affect students too young to make gender decisions. Others say that the change could lead to teachers pushing certain viewpoints on students. There were even parents who said their property values would be lowered.

This idea has been debated before.  Webster’s Dictionary included the word “thon”, an abbreviation of “that one” to be used as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1934.  Research shows that a similar discussion came up in the 1800s.