The Swedish Academy’s SAOL dictionary is being republished on April 15, 2015 with thousands of new words. Among them is the gender-neutral pronoun “hen”, which can be used instead of the masculine “han” (he) and feminine “hon” (she). The Swedish Academy was set up in 1785 with the aim of adapting the Swedish language to changing cultural and societal influences. “It’s quite simple,” the dictionary’s editor in chief, Sven-Goran Malmgren, told The Independent on Thursday. “It is a word which is in use and without a doubt fills a function.”
Five years ago, barely anyone in Sweden used “hen”. The word was introduced in the 1960’s, but didn’t take hold until it resurfaced around 2000 when the country’s transgender community began using it widely. Its growth is attributed to LGBT groups promoting awareness, but also nurseries, kindergartens, and preschools who argue that the pronoun’s usage allows children to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. However, some argue that simply introducing a gender-neutral pronoun will not do much to fight sexism or gender bias. The Turkish language includes a gender-neutral pronoun, but Turkey ranked 125th in the 2014 gender equality report of the World Economic Forum. Sweden was ranked fourth.
In any case, the official inclusion of “hen” into the SAOL dictionary is expected to facilitate an increased daily use of the pronoun. “You hear it all the time on TV shows, radio, and magazines, and you don’t even think about it anymore,” a Swedish resident told the United Press International. “I was confused by it when I first heard it a few years ago, but now it’s just another word in our dictionary — though with an important purpose, of course.”
We already have a gender-neutral pronoun in English: it. Until recently, “it” was commonly used (and is occasionally still used) to refer to babies, young children, and other animals. The use of “it” could be extended to adult humans and would be ever so much less offensive than the barbarisms “they,” “them,” and “their.” Moreover, “it” has the advantage of not being case-sensitive, unlike the correct common gender (as well as masculine) forms “he,” him,” and “his.”
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