This is the story of a very special little neologism, born in Sweden to Finnish parents: hen. The term — loved, hated, debated and famous worldwide — has become a symbol for Sweden as a pioneer in gender and LGBTQ rights. But what is its actual impact? Is it merely a trend, or is it here to stay? And, at the end of the day, what’s in a word? Here, we’ll explore the history, legacy and implications of the Swedish hen.
Inclusion And Grammatical Gender
Much like the rise of the singular “they” as an inclusive pronoun in English, Swedish has in recent years seen a veritable explosion in the use of the gender neutral pronoun hen. The word was inspired by the Finnish pronoun hän, which refers to anyone at all, because Finnish is a genderless language.
Swedish, unlike Finnish, has two grammatical genders — common and neuter — but they don’t correspond to human gender. The nouns for man and woman have the same grammatical gender, even. But similarly to English, people are referred to by different pronouns: han (he) and hon (she).
Like most languages with a gender system in nouns or pronouns, Swedish also has to deal with the issue of masculinity as the epicene gender (the gender that is meant to be inclusive and speak for everyone), as we can see in sentences like, “If a customer is looking for reimbursement, he should contact customer service.” The problem is that such statements are increasingly considered non-inclusive. If you’re not a man, it’s hard to know if the he is meant to include you, or if it’s talking about men only. Using she in the same way often causes confusion among men. In addition, a binary pronoun system like this makes it difficult for people who identify as neither “he” nor “she.”
A Brief History Of The Swedish Hen
The Swedish hen is used to solve exactly these two problems. But is it really effective to invent a new pronoun and encourage people use it? In Sweden, the road to integrate hen into everyday speech has been winding, but also surprisingly short.
Hen is believed to have been coined in the 1960s, when linguist Rolf Dunås argued the need for a gender neutral pronoun in a local newspaper. In the decades following, hen was really only used within small academic and activist groups where gender awareness and queer theory prevailed. The term didn’t reach the masses until 2012, with the release of a children’s book that used only hen instead of han and hon for its characters.
The book started a debate, which to this day isn’t concluded (as with most political debates). Many saw the pronoun as a threat to the current world order, where men are men and women are women. Authorities, the media and language counseling organs like Språkrådet were concerned that the use of the Swedish hen would distract from the message and be seen as a queer-political statement. Some conservative media outlets made decisions to not use hen, whereas other progressive media outlets answered to that by using only hen. And so the little word spread like wildfire in a Nordic forest. After all, we’re talking about a small, highly digitalized and trend-sensitive country, with a self-image of being progressive and innovative. These factors arguably played a big role in integrating and normalizing a new gender-neutral pronoun.
A Gender-Neutral Future?
Think of all the new words you’ve integrated into your vocabulary over the past few years. Do you have some in mind? Ok, good. The words you think of are likely to be related to technology, internet culture or the globalized nature of our world, but I bet they also have the following in common: they are nouns, verbs, or adjectives. They are what we call the open word classes. This might only be thrilling for the grammar nerds out there, but adding new personal pronouns is something that only happens to a language every … well, 500 years or so. That in itself might be a sign that hen is here to stay, but we can’t really know for sure, given that it’s so new. What linguists can do, is to study the current usage of the pronoun and try to draw conclusions from that.
In 2018, there were 133 han and hon used for every one hen. In 2012, when the debate started, that number was 416. The year before that, when hen was merely a twinkle in its non-binary parent’s eye, was 13,000. That sounds like a pretty extraordinary trajectory for any word, but it’s particularly good for a word belonging to a closed word class.
When looking at news articles in Swedish, it’s easy to see that the pronoun has a function for the writer, especially when someone’s gender is unknown or unimportant. A patient, the teacher, the witness, the employee, a person, a hunter, the fundamentalist — these are the nouns that hen replaces in a handful of recent news articles found online, showing how hen can be used to make gender more invisible and less important, and to not interrupt the text flow by rephrasings like han eller hon, han/hon or vederbörande (meaning “he or she,” “he/she” and “the person concerned,” respectively). Hen is now so common in our everyday lives that the understanding doesn’t suffer anymore and it doesn’t distract from the message, which are prerequisites for it to have long-lasting success as a neologism.
Still, it is likely that hen is mostly used by a specific type of people who share the same basic values. It’s also likely to be used more in younger generations and in urban areas. The term is still far from accepted and used by everyone. Some people still fear that using a gender neutral pronoun will erase all the differences between men and women (Something that has already happened over in grammatical genderless Finland. Or wait, no it hasn’t…).
There is only so much a three letter word can do. It can’t change the world, in one direction or the other. What it can help with, however, is to challenge gender bias; draw attention to certain behavior in ourselves and how we think of gender; and make everyday language more inclusive.
Many of us have welcomed the Swedish hen for exactly these reasons, and hopefully most of us also recognize what an important purpose the pronoun serves for nonbinary people.
Perhaps, that is all that’s in a word: the practical purpose it serves in communication. And if hen has made a lot of lives easier, then we believe it deserves to stay forever.