Hi Hen? Purging Gender from the Language

Can an entire society become gender-neutral? Sweden wants to try. The country that brought us 16 months of paid parental leave and mandatory pay equality between the sexes has embarked on a crusade to abolish gender roles.

According to Megan Levy in The Age, Toy catalogs now feature photos of boys pushing doll carriages and girls playing with cars. State-run preschools have been instructed to avoid referring to children as girls or boys, and many of them have hired “gender pedagogues” who “help staff identify language and behavior that risk reinforcing stereotypes.” That task was made easier a few months ago, when a children’s book author pioneered a new pronoun, hen, as an alternative to the words han and hon for “he” and “she.” Kivi & Monsterhund tells the story of a child named Kivi, of indeterminate gender, who wants a dog for “hen’s” birthday. The book sparked a lively discussion on social-media sites, and now hen has been added to the national online encyclopedia.

It’s ironic that this is happening now, said Carin Stenstrom in Skanska Dagbladet (Skane, Sweden), when Swedish children live in a world “with much greater emphasis on gender difference” than there was in their parents’ or grandparents’ youth. When I was growing up in the postwar decades, the prevailing ideal was that clothes should be practical and easy to clean. Pastel shades were out, even for dresses, and forget about ruffles or bows. “As a mother, I followed the same ideals.” My sons and daughter wore the same rompers and overalls, and had the same home-cut hairstyle. For a while in the ’60s and ’70s, parents were tossing around mixed-gender names like May-Bjorn and Karl-Astrid. But nowadays, girls dress head to toe in flouncy pink and boys look like mini lumberjacks.

Not everyone is thrilled with the attempt to erase those sex differences, said Carl Erland Andersson in Goteborgs-Posten (Gothenburg, Sweden). Jan Guillou, one of our best-known authors, said in a recent interview that proponents of hen were “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.” But that’s an overreaction. The word hen certainly “sounds a bit pompous,” and it will add another layer of blandness to the language if it catches on. But that’s a big if. Language is an evolving tool that grows organically. No commandment from on high can suddenly change the way we speak and write; we have to adopt new words on our own.

Still, if any country can erase sex differences from language, it’s Sweden, said Thomas Steinfeld in the Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany). The Swedes already tinkered with Swedish once in the name of equality, and it was a great success. In the late 1960s, state institutions abolished the use of Ni, the formal version of “you” that corresponds to the French vous or German Sie. The formal pronoun was seen as hierarchical, and Sweden was—and is—all about leveling the playing field. Yet can changing the way Swedes speak really change Swedish society? Here in Germany, we’ve gone from calling people of other ethnic backgrounds “foreigners” to calling them “immigrants” and, now, the politically correct “people of migrant origin.” The change in terms has not bettered their lot one iota.

- As seen in The Week
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