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We're all Hens: Sweden Introduces Gender-Neutral Pronoun

How can you raise a child in an environment free of gender bias when the very language you speak distinguishes boys from girls?

Well, Sweden is fixing that obvious linguistic flaw by introducing a new gender-neutral pronoun:

Just days after International Women's Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The entry defines hen as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]."The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites. It was sparked by the publication of Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for "hen's" birthday.

Nathalie Rothschild explains in Slate's DoubleX blog: Link

View more over at our Kids & Baby Blog NeatoBambino


Why do people think that free of gender bias means neutered? A girl should know that she's a girl and not a boy. This knowledge of basic difference will not stop her from knowing and girls and boys are equal. They're not identical, but still equal.
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@Andrew.
Swedes are aware of most of the Swedish words English find amusing. Like "fagott" = bassoon. We make our own Swenglish wordplays like (about car collisions) "It's not the fart{speed} that kills, it's the smä(e)ll{impact}."

Yes Swedish has two forms, neutrum "ett" or gender (reale) "en". As in "en man" or "en kvinna" or "ett hus". Ombudsman is reale as in "hon är en ombudsman" but ombud is neutrum as in "han är ett ombud (för...)". The grammatical rules for what is en or ett is mostly a mystery for native speakers trying to explain it to foreigners. "It just sounds right that way." I had German classes in school and tried to memorize the rules for their die/der/das. I'm sure native Germans also can't explain why a word is female except by a rule about suffixes or that it sounds right. "(Das) Auto" in German is neutrum, but "bil(en)" in Swedish is reale. I'm not sure if there is any difference because of that in how we see a car, except German cars are often seen as objects of desire and Swedish cars are known for safety.

Gender specific titles are not reflecting gender as much today. A male nurse would be a "manlig sjuksköterska" but today he is just a sjuksköterska. Teachers are only "lärare" regardless of gender and no "lärarinna". "Polisman/-kvinna" are now "polis" but English lack such form and need to call them police officers. Women works as "brandman". But old language is hard to change. The huMAN is even called "MÄNniska". Other smilarities: "mantimmar" - man hours, "mandom" - manhood. Well, it used to be a man's world.
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@Gustav V: Thanks for the elaboration! In my English dialect I still say 'sir' and 'ma'am', even to teenagers. The last has gotten me into trouble in California when a woman didn't think she was old enough to be called 'ma'am.' I don't think the association with the English word 'hen' is all that big given the Swedish words 'slut' and 'fart'. ;)

Personally I love that Swedish, like English, does not have feminine and masculine forms, other than archaic remnants like "den gode mannen." Research like that at http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/gender.pdf has convinced me that there are "effects of grammatical gender on people's descriptions of objects, their assessments of similarity between pictures of objects, and their ability to remember proper names for objects." "The arbitrary designation of a noun as masculine or feminine ... can have an effect on how people think about things in the world."

Or http://www.frontiersin.org/cultural_psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244/abstract : Jakobson (1959) reports: “The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists: he did not realize that ‘sin’ is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (rpex).” Does the grammatical gender of nouns in an artist’s native language indeed predict the gender of personifications in art? In this paper we analyzed works in the ARTstor database (a digital art library containing over a million images) to measure this correspondence. This analysis provides a measure of artists’ real-world behavior. Our results show a clear correspondence between grammatical gender in language and personified gender in art. Grammatical gender predicted personified gender in 78% of the cases, significantly more often than if the two factors were independent.

That's why I don't like that Swedish words like "vetenskapsman" ('knowledge-man' = 'scientist') or "ombudsman" have "man" so tied to the name. Interestingly, some people in English will write 'ombudsman' as 'ombud.'

Anyway, there's a more complete discussion of the 'hen' topic at Language Log at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3898 .
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Thanks Andrew - that's fascinating! Though not exactly the same thing, this reminds me of the different levels of "politeness" in various Asian languages like Javanese, Korean and Japanese.
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@Andrew:
The du-reform was driven by the young people that already dropped the distinction during the growing hippie influence. Later the newspapers picked up on the trend and then the older generations too. Just like English at the same time dropped the sir/ma'm and mr./mrs./ms. in everyday language of young people, a reform that wasn't as successful.

(In recent news France only just dropped their unnecessary marriage status distinctions.)
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/23/world/europe/france-drops-mademoiselle-from-official-use.html

Hen is a word first invented in the sixties by academics, then not used, and now revived by a few gender academics. The heated debate in Sweden is because the general public doesn't like this psychological experiment on their children in kindergarten, and think these gender fixated people are way down the wrong path of feminism. Also hen sounds like henne (3rd person possessive her), and the English word hen for female chicken as Swedes are very proficient in English, so it isn't really neutral to begin with. Feminism is also infected in Sweden where it is associated with extreme views, man-hate, and far left socialism, but also political correctness.

There are many languages that always have had gender neutral words for he/she. They aren't gender neutral societies. Soviet promoted the word comrade for everyone, had women working in factories, but in the end Soviet women were foremost child bearing housewives and men were the important gender doing politics and protecting the women (so they thought). Much like in any unequal country.

Words are just words if you don't put a meaning behind them. True equality in gender/race/... is not through language but through the state of mind.
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Abdul: this is proposed change to general use, not a legal change. There is no talk of fines for not using the proposed alternatives.

The best context to see this is to compare it to Sweden's "You reform" in the 1960s. Sweden has singular 'you' ("du") and a plural 'you' ("Ni"), rather like 'you' vs. 'you all' in the US South dialect. (Yes, "Ni" was capitalized.)

However, unlike in Southern English, "Ni" was often used to refer to a single person, and "du" was reserved for close family and for children. This somewhat like in Spanish, where "usted" is the plural form of 'you' but it's also used in singular form for formal cases.

Sweden before the 1960s was more formal. People would be referred to by their job title, like "Engineer Svensson" or "Bus Driver Hurtig" and even listed in the phone book by job title, not name. "Ni" was part of that formality, but it also had a tinge of classism. In one story around the time, a woman dropped her scarf. A man picked it up and said "'Ni' have dropped this." The woman replied coldly "I am not 'Ni' to you", meaning I think that "I am not your servant so don't use 'Ni' to refer to me."

In the 1960s, the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the head of the National Board of Health and Welfare, and others started pushing for a language reform. They decided unilaterally to use 'du' instead of 'ni', in the interests of increased social democracy and equality. This reform was successful, and now 'Ni' is only rarely used for the singular second person.

You could still use it if you wanted to, but people would look at you funny, like if you wore a Norfolk suit around town now.

This proposal for the gender neutral 'hen' is in the same vein. It's a push for more equality in the language by removing cases where you must otherwise artificially insert gender into the conversation.

Personally, I want a gender-neutral term. At the very least I wouldn't have to say "What a beautiful baby! How old is .. he? she?" The many proposed terms in English don't feel like a good fit to the language, but the proposed one for Swedish sounds reasonable to my foreign ears.
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In finnish language there is only one pronoun for both genders, so it is gender-neutral language. I still think there is some sort of gender-bias in Finland, althought it is one of the world most gender equal countries. Becouse of the gender-neutral language, I don't know.
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WHO CARES. there is automatically a gender bias because we actually do have different genders. everyone needs to stop worrying about being "gender-neutral" and start worrying about being a human being.
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