Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

Words Mean Things: Hen

Words Mean Things: Hen

For those of you playing along at home, you might know I’m studying Swedish. I’ve been studying for about six years now and my Swedish remains decidedly awful.

Although I did spend eight weeks studying in Sweden, have visited twice since then, listen to Swedish music and watch Swedish television, as well as read books in Swedish, I can’t speak worth a damn.

Part of the problem is my friends refuse to speak Swedish to me most of the time. Most Swedes, especially those my own age and younger, grew up learning English. They thus have much more facility with English than I do with Swedish. Moreover, most of them are excited to speak English with a real, live, native English speaker. If I ask them to speak Swedish with me, they say, “Asch! Swedish is a silly language to learn, let’s speak English.”

(Perhaps the worst part of this is I fit most people’s stereotypical conception of a Swede, so if I enter a shop, the salespeople start speaking rapid-fire Swedish and I just grin.)

I am interested in many things about Sweden, including their culture of gender-inclusiveness. While Sweden isn’t a utopia—far from it—it does have a reputation as being more gender inclusive.

Respect for Women

Sweden has pressed for gender equality, and it’s considered one of the best countries in the world to be a woman. Parental leave is more than a year long, and parents of either sex are mandated to take three months’ leave. The remainder of the leave can be broken down any which way between the parents. Thus, Swedish men take more parental leave than men in almost any other country.


State-run daycare is also provided, beginning at the youngest ages, to facilitate parents’ return to work. If parents return to work before they use up all of their leave, the remaining days can be carried over and taken when one needs to stay home with a sick child, instead of sending them to daycare.


We can look at a historical respect for women in Old Norse culture. The Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes were less influenced by the teachings of the Church. Viking culture was relatively egalitarian for its time: Women could inherit property and divorce their husbands.


A respect for women is notable in Swedish culture.


The Use of Language in Pursuit of Gender Equality

Another notable thing about Sweden’s push for gender equality is the use of language. We can look to Old Norse, which created surnames like “Thorvaldsdottir” as well as “Thorvaldsson.” You could also be identified by your mother’s name, although this was less common. This speaks to the importance of women and the view of women as their own people; they were important enough to need to be identified on their own. In other Germanic languages, we often only see the “-son” construction, which indicates only men were worthy of identification.


Obviously, the world has changed a lot since the days of the Vikings, and language has evolved since then as well. It’s much rarer to see the “-dottir” construction, and surnames aren’t changing every generation, remaining stable over time, much as they do in the rest of the West at this point.


This doesn’t mean the quest for equality in language has been abandoned. We can look to another example: the singular use of the plural “ni.” Often used as a “polite” way to refer to a lower class person without a title, “ni” was out of vogue, then came back into popular usage in the late 1990s. Now it’s out of vogue again (and even considered insulting), and it’s more proper to refer to everyone as “du,” which puts you on equal footing, whether you’re the prime minister of Sweden or a pleb.


Reintroducing a polite or plural second person is something we sometimes debate in English, as “you” functions for both singular and plural and it can sometimes be difficult to tell if a person is referring to a single person or a group. We’ve dropped it, however, largely because “you” seems to do well enough and it doesn’t allow for the distinction based on class or rank.

The Third Person Neutral

When I first visited Sweden in 2012, there was a debate going on in linguistic circles about including a third person neutral. There had been several suggestions, and there was considerable tension over what to do.

A diagram showing the three singular Swedish pronouns: hon, han, and hen.

Hen is a gender-neutral alternative to hon and han in Swedish.

A few years later, the decision had been made to add a new pronoun to the Swedish language: hen.


Han is the masculine third person, and hon is the feminine. Hon becomes henne/hennes in the accusative and genitive. “Hen” is pronounced somewhere in between “hon,” “han,” and “henne.”


Why Do You Need One?

Many people think adding a neuter pronoun to the language is just liberal leftist nonsense. It’s easy to think this, because much of the push does come from the LGBTQ+ movement, where people may not identify as male or female and may prefer pronouns that reflect their identities, without forcing them into a rigid “male/female” binary. The other push comes from feminism, where we’ve largely replaced archaic constructions such as “mankind” and “when a person goes to school, he must be prepared to learn.”


There are many suggests for a gender neutral third person in English. Some people find them ridiculous, just as they find the suggestion we even need one idiotic.


Here’s the thing, though: English has some fairly sloppy constructions when it comes to neutralizing the language. We’ve used “s/he,” “she or he,” and other constructions to be more gender inclusive. These suck. One, they’re a mouthful and awkward and they look bad on the page. Two, they retain the rigid binary, which does not encapsulate some people’s experience.


They Already Had One


In Swedish, there was something of a similar problem! They actually had a third person “neutral,” or indefinite. The indefinite was used in the same figurative way we’d use “one” or, previously, “he.” So, where we would say, “One must be prepared” or “the student must always see he is prepared,” the Swedes would use man.


Man translates roughly as “one,” although it’s the same word used for, you guessed it, man. So despite claims it’s “neutral,” it does have a gendered connotation. In English, “one” is much more neutral, but saying it becomes tiresome: “one must make sure one is always on one’s toes, for one never knows when one will need to write a test for one’s teacher.”


Phew. I’m tired.


If we rewrite that sentence using pronouns, it feels shorter—but we can only rewrite it with “gendered” options, such as “he” or “she or he.” The “she or he” construction would make this feel even longer.


The Swedish “man” is actually quite common, compared to the English “one” (which is considered formal and stuffy). So the Swedes already had a fairly common third person indefinite, and they decided they needed a truly neutral pronoun anyway.


The Equalizing Effect of Language

Language is power. We’ve already noted the use of “ni” versus “du” in Swedish. “Du” is informal, familiar, but it puts everyone on equal footing. When everyone is “du” and no one is “ni” (unless there’s a pack of you), you’re not singling a person out.


While one could make arguments about a reduction in politeness within the language, Swedish culture tends to draw on the idea of lagom, “just right.” The concept is difficult to truly translate into English, but one of the ideas behind it is everyone who is a Swede is (relatively) equal. You therefore don’t want to stand out too much. Rich Swedes are actually taught not to be too ostentatious; you’ll see the well-off driving Volvos similar to their less well-off counterparts. Maybe they opted for leather interiors or heated seats, but they’re not all driving Lamborghinis down the streets of Stockholm. That’s showing off, which is frowned upon. What, do you think you’re better than everyone else or something?


Dropping “ni” for “du” seems a little thing, but linguistically, it puts everyone on the same footing. Similarly, eliminating “man” and replacing it with a truly neutral word, “hen,” puts everyone on equal footing. No more worrying if you’re using “hon” or “han” too much, no more awkward “hon/han” constructions. Not sure if someone is a male or female? No problem; use hen.


English’s Other Solution

Our other solution in English has been to adopt the third person plural and use it in a singular sense. This has long roots, although some people argue it’s grammatically incorrect. We’ve been doing it since the 1300s, however, so maybe it’s time to bring it back en vogue. (If Chaucer could do it …)


Language certainly changes and evolves, but our ancestors also had a need for a gender-neutral third person. It begs the question of why we don’t have one.


And, further, if Swedish can go ahead and add one, despite ostensibly having one that would do, why the fuck can’t we add one?


The answer is we can and should. What it will be, what it should be, is another story.

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