The internet is abuzz at the news that the Swedish Academy has just added a gender-neutral pronoun to its dictionary, the Svenska Akademiens ordlista (SAOL). In addition to hon ‘she’ and han ‘he’, speakers of Swedish now officially have the option of using gender-neutral hen. It can be used in different ways: when a person does not identify as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and wants to use a pronoun that reflects their gender identity, when referring to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant (such as in legal texts), or as a replacement for hon and han. While it’s only just been officially recognised by the dictionary, hen has existed since the 1960s and has been used increasingly throughout Sweden over the last decade or so (All dictionaries are constantly playing ‘catch-up’ as language evolves). It’s had a Swedish Wikipedia entry since April 2005 and one in English since January 2013. Despite this official recognition, not everyone is Sweden is happy about hen. Some people think that, instead of leading to a more equal society, a gender-neutral pronoun will only confuse children and leave them ill-prepared for a world that places a lot of emphasis on gender. Meanwhile, the Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall writes that hen will neither confuse children nor bring about a more equal society, pointing out that there is no direct correlation between languages which distinguish gender in personal pronouns and rates of gender inequality in the countries where most people speak those languages.
Hen has been in the English-speaking news pretty consistently over the last few years. There were articles in Slate and Language Log in 2012 when it was added to the Swedish National Encyclopaedia. The Huffington Post had another article in 2013 and it appeared again in Newsweek in 2014. Now that hen has made it into the dictionary, it’s back in the news again. On Monday night, Maria Nordström, chairperson of the Swedish School in Sydney, told Radio National’s Drive program that hen’s success was due to Sweden’s highly progressive society and that Australia was unlikely to adopt similar measures any time soon. Sweden is known for its high level of gender equality and the country is constantly in the news for its gender equality measures: from gender-neutral curricula to toy store catalogues countering gender norms to paid parental leave. The United Nations Human Development report ranked Sweden 4th for gender equality in 2013 while Australia came in 19th.
While Australia may still have gendered marketing in its toy stores, we do have an officially recognised gender-neutral pronoun. It’s called singular they and it is already in the Macquarie Dictionary. The entry contains the following usage note: ‘The use of they, them, and their as non-gender-specific singulars … has always had currency in spoken English and is now increasingly accepted in written English’. The definition itself highlights that while it is used in informal contexts, it is increasingly used in formal ones. Singular they has been used by many prominent literary figures throughout history, including Chaucer, Austen, and Shakespeare. As discussed last year here on Fully (Sic), younger Australian English speakers largely accept singular they. Much of the time singular they is used, it is in an indefinite sense (with words like nobody, anyone, every, etc.). There are English speakers, however, who prefer to use they as their personal pronoun. As with the Swedish hen, this is usually because they do not identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. Meanwhile, some speakers prefer other pronouns. There are lots of options in English which are not in the dictionary (yet), such as xe, ze, and thon.
If you would like to learn more about gender-neutral pronouns in English, the youth LGBT organisation Minus18 has resources you can access online. Marco Fink has written a how-to guide for pronoun use and there is an app where you can practice using pronouns in different grammatical constructions.
Allie Severin is a PhD candidate in linguistics at Monash University. She is fascinated by normative language behaviour and sociolinguistics. When not attempting to write her thesis, she can be found discussing the joy of splitting infinitives with unsuspecting strangers.
Hedvig Skirgård is a Swede and a PhD student at ANU, working on why some languages are varied while others are not. She also runs a blog called Humans Who Read Grammars and works on the International Linguistics Olympiad.