It’s official, the Swedish lexicon has a new word. The Swedish Academy has just adopted the neutral pronoun “hen”.
A few months ago, Sweden formalized the use of the pronoun hen. Beyond the grammatical novelty, these three letters also imply an ideological shift.
Language is the product of a culture
Language not only expresses the messages that users want to transmit. It also reveals things about their own culture. Much has been said, for example, of the macho nature of a language like French: why should we use the masculine plural pronoun when referring to a man and a woman? It’s even worse when thousand women and one man walk together, and we must say “they walk” using the masculine plural pronoun…
The feminist origins of the pronoun
Swedish feminists have been complaining for decades against these injustices. In the sixties, many women adopted the neutral pronoun hen, which was taken from the pronoun hän in neighboring Finnish. The aim was to promote gender equality, avoiding some inflexible terms, such as “he or she”.
Appropriation by the transgender movement
However, the use of the pronoun was limited to certain feminist circles until transgender activists incorporated it as well, at the beginning of the millennium. One of their workhorses is the sexing of personal pronouns: why should we need to define the sex of a person using a personal pronoun when we refer to this or that? If I meet someone on the street and I like his clothes, necessarily, I characterize its kind and say he or she is well dressed, which for her, in Spanish, for examples, means adding an ‘a’ on the end.
Gaining fans among the population, particularly the younger crowd
Thanks to the transgender movement, the use of the neutral personal pronoun in Swedish has developed to the point that today hen appears in newspapers, on billboards and in books, not to mention Internet. It is even used in the judiciary sphere. However, young people adopted it more quickly, fully incorporating it into their vocabulary.
Official recognition by the Swedish Academy
Its increasingly widespread use prompted the Swedish Academy to add the word to the new edition of SAOL, the reference dictionary of the Swedish language. Now, this pronoun may lawfully be used in Swedish to refer to a person without specifying their gender (either because they do not know it or because the information is irrelevant), or a person which does not identify with either gender.
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