Swedes are tossing out their “His n’ Hers” bath towels in favor of language that’s a little more inclusive.
Earlier this month Sweden’s online National Encyclopedia adopted the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in addition to “he” [han] and “she” [hon]. Post-media explosion, the controversy extends beyond the Swedish-speaking world.
Slate reports that Sweden’s linguists caught their first whiff of gender neutral language in the mid-1960s. In 1994, linguist Hans Karlgren proposed using hen as a personal pronoun to replace the awkward “he or she” that clutters formal writing.
But Karlgren’s strictly practical view of having a word that “enables us to speak of a person without specifying their gender” has been taken up by a political movement.
Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral bathrooms in public establishments. The Swedish Bowling Association plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments to make the sport gender-neutral. Swedish preschools are banning gendered language, referring to students as “friends” rather than “boys and girls.”
The rest of the world has its own rumblings of an emerging gender-neutral culture but when it comes to pronouns, places like the mainstream US are far behind Sweden.
English-speaking queer circles use a variety of gender-neutral pronouns like “ze/hir.” As Kate Bornstein recently pointed out on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, the singular “they” is growing in popularity, despite breaking grammar rules. But outside of spaces where gender-neutral language is explicitly encouraged to show respect, gender-netural pronouns are obsolete. And we could really use them.
I’m not suggesting that we should obliterate “he’s” and “she’s” from our vocabularies and identities. Lots of people like to be “he’s” and “she’s,” sometimes both, and sometimes one or the other depending on the weather or time of day. But if we used gender-neutral pronouns to refer to those whose pronoun preferences we don’t know, we’d avoid making assumptions about people’s identities. For those of us whose genders are often misread, that would save us from many an awkward encounter.
Some Swedes insist that adding a pronoun to their national encyclopedia won’t change existing gender inequalities, and while they’re right to assume that words alone don’t make a movement, language can still have a massive impact.
Encouraging people to read, write, speak, and think in language that prevents us making assumptions is a huge step towards acknowledging the variety of gender identities around us. I know a lot of “he’s,” “she’s,” “ze’s” and “hens” who would appreciate the effort.