The Swedish pronoun "hen" - how and why it is and isn't used
Quite a lot of people have been asking about the pronoun hen in these forums, so I thought I'd write a summary on the subject. Surprisingly to many who first learn about it, the word is somewhat controversial in Sweden, for a variety of reasons.
There are plenty of, frankly, inane arguments on either side of this debate. I will simply ignore those. I will endeavor to keep this post neutral, but please note for transparency that I like and use the word myself.
What is it?
The word hen is a pronoun, just like han or hon. Unlike those two, hen does not denote gender. So it's more like saying "he or she", and even more like using "they" in its gender-neutral singular meaning in English.
A gender-neutral pronoun has been suggested many times in Sweden, especially in the most recent two decades or so. Finnish, not having grammatical genders, served as an inspiration - the word hen is modelled after Finnish hän. Using det is not recommended, as that would be like calling people "it" in English. Some people prefer using den as a pronoun, though.
Its recommended forms (using English "they" in the singular) are:
- subject form: hen, as in hen är vacker - "they are beautiful"
- object form: hen, as in jag såg hen - "I saw them"
- possessive: hens, as in hens bok - "their book"
Contrary to a common misconception, hen is not intended as a replacement for any currently used pronoun. Rather, it is meant as a complement, for situations where
- you don't know the gender of a person, or
- the gender is irrelevant or would distract from what you're saying, or
- the person about whom you're talking does not identify strictly as male or female
Calling somebody hen when you know they prefer hon or han is considered rude.
Usage of hen has snowballed enormously in the past few years. About ten years ago, it was not seen in any mainstream media, nor was it in use by the public in general. Five years ago, I'm pretty certain most if not all Swedes had heard about the word, and had likely formed an opinion on it.
By 2013, mainstream media had started using it, and it had occurred in parliamentary debates. Last year, it was included in Svenska Akademiens ordlista, which is a glossary over the Swedish language so authorative that many think it actually defines the language. (It doesn't - but that's another topic.)
Språkrådet, the Swedish language council, does not argue for or against hen, but recommends caution since a controversial word might divert attention from the general argument.
So why is it controversial?
Acceptance of hen first spread in the LGBT community, where there was a need for a gender-neutral pronoun. As such, it is not surprising that it came to be associated with the (third-wave) feminimism of the time, and with gay activists. These groups are still some of the word's biggest supporters, and that image persists. (It might be noted that of these, the trans community is where it makes arguably the most sense, but this community is a lot smaller and not as accepted. So hen is not associated wtih it to the same extent.)
This means that although the word was not intended to be political in nature, it was used by heavily politicised groups, and became political by extension. These groups also had and have vocal supporters and vocal opposition both.
Given this, I am not surprised that quite a lot of people thought hen was a replacement for hon and han. And while there are proponents of abolishing han and hon entirely, these are few and far between, and are not taken seriously by the vast majority of hen users.
Obviously, if hen were to replace traditional gendered pronouns, that would violate the gender identity of rather a lot of people. Understandably, people get defensive about that.
Another reason that it's controversial is that some people feel it has been forced on them - it does not matter whether you like the word or not, it's still permeated Swedish quite efficiently.
These are the two largest serious arguments. There are other concerns - e.g. if the word is used exclusively for a child, does that conflict with the child's right to its own gender identity? There are also plenty of arguments that are, well, not really relevant - e.g. "I don't like the sound of it" or "the cis-gendered world has had their own pronouns long enough."
If you intend to reach any level of Swedish fluency, you should know about hen and learn how it is used. You are perfectly free to use it, just as you are perfectly free not to use it. Using it on somebody who dislikes it is considered rude, just as using gendered pronouns on somebody who prefers hen is.
However, it should, at the moment, not be included in the Duolingo course. There are various reasons for this, but it ultimately comes down to that it's not common enough, so it doesn't matter whether it's a good word or not.
Thank you for posting this! It is really interesting to see how a language develops during years and years and is adapting to social issues.
I can quite understand that this causes a problem in the gender debate but I am glad you summarised everything so well. I will try and remember hen and use it generally for situations when I don't know which gender I mean (as in sentences that are true for female and male people) but I'll be careful to use it - as you can say, it might upset someone!
Tack sa mycket ! I was looking after a gender-neutral pronoun for me since I'm agender :)
You're very welcome. Hen is definitely a good choice for you, then. :)
Thank you for this post. Couldn't have said it better myself.
Like you, I like it and use it, mainly just when gender is not known or irrelevant, or for friends of mine who don't identify binarily.
It's so cool that Swedish has a gender-neutral pronoun! I'm agender and a fluent speaker of English and German, but German has quite complicated declension of pronouns, so that promoting a third one would probably frustrate a lot of people--and I'm not sure the vast majority of Germans are even aware of the existence of genders besides man and woman, sadly. I always feel a little bit of frustration when I have to pick one gender or the other in a foreign language I'm learning, so I'm really glad Swedish has a gender-neutral pronoun common enough that everyone's heard of it!!
Another thing to say about the word is that it's way older than about 5 years old. It was invented 1966 by Rolf Dunås, so it's actually 10 times older than 5 years :) But yeah, not as old as all the other pronouns.
I got that :) I just wanted to explain, so that nobody thinks it's only 5 years old :)
I think that if a possible translation for a sentence that came across (which was something along the lines of "She is waiting on her wife to arrive.", then I think that "hen" should be offered as well, Y'know? I know that this site is accepting and tolerant about this kind of stuff, and I think that "hen" could/should have a mention in the basic 1 notes at the very least. Perhaps, a small note that is like, "Hey. This word exists, but we are choosing not to use it in the course due to it's controversial existence within the Swedish Language."
This question may be in a wrong place, but have you in Sweden had a broader discussion concerning gendered nouns (such as brandman or allemansrätten)? I'm from Finland and right now there is lots of discussion about replacing these with gender-neutral versions (fireperson, allepersonsrätten, clumsy examples but you get the idea) and was wondering where you are in Sweden regarding this issue.
There have been such debates, yes, but there's no general consensus and it's less of an hot topic. I'm honestly not very well-versed in these discussions, so I don't wish to write more about it in case I get something wrong.
So, let me get this straight. If one intends to reach any level of Swedish fluency, they should learn about hen.... But apparently it should not be included in the Duolingo course because... it's not common enough?
Seriously? Despite all Swedes knowing about it for years? Despite it being used in mainstream media since 2013? Despite its usage gaining popularity enormously? Despite it being included in Svenska Akademiens ordlista?
If we're supposed to learn about it, why not include it in the language learning course, so we can actually learn it? I mean, if it wasn't needed in Duolingo, and it wasn't "common enough" to be included, people would stop requesting it, and this post wouldn't need to exist.
This makes very little sense, and I hope it is included very soon.
There's very limited vocabulary space in the Duolingo course, and there are literally thousands of words that fit those criteria yet aren't common enough to be included in the course. Although everyone knows what hen means, there are lots of people who don't use the word. There's also the issue that including the word in the course would automatically make a political statement, which I assume Duolingo would like to avoid.
It seems like acceptance of gender non-conformity is an important part of Swedish culture, much like vegetarianism. A couple of sentences with "hen" would not be any more political than "I am against meat", which is included in this course.
Besides, as you mentioned in your post, there are other ways one can use "hen", i.e. when gender is unknown or irrelevant, so it doesn't even have to be political.
I understand the limitations, but I still hope it's included in future; perhaps in Swedish Tree 2.0? :)
My take on this is that reading a topic like this one is more useful than seeing the word used in sentences. If you've read this text, you already know the word.
hen comes up pretty frequently in discussions so that anyone who reads the sentence discussions in our course (which I really recommend: we spend a lot of time weeding off topic comments out of them and there are tons of useful explanations in them) will probably come across a link to this topic sooner or later, if they didn't already find it via the sticky post under Swedish/Discussions.
No, not at all. When I wrote this post, I think every single member of the Swedish contributor team actually liked and used the word hen. Though not including the word can absolutely be a political statement, in this case it really was not.
maybe someone already said this but 'den' can be used as a gender neutral pronoun as well and is a preferred pronoun for many gender non-conforming people. so it is not considered rude if the person requests you call them by that pronoun.
You're right! That's actually a very recent development, but it's been gaining ground rapidly. I'll update my post to reflect this. :)
So my problem is how you mention they is used as a singular. That simply is not the case with the English language. Also you do not distinguish the difference between different English languages either. So "they" used in a singular reference has only happened in fiction works and extremely rare, people are trying to use it today because of those rare instances it was used. Origin of words is one thing. But also please note that if you want to write something without anyone getting a feel for bias, you should not write about your own feelings on the matter. Additionally I would suggest you go back to the history/origin in more detail explain how it first came about and I agree this should not be included as it isn't adopted by a majority of a society.
They is used as a singular - it's quite common nowadays, whether you or I like it or not. But the comparison was not made for those reasons. It would be stupid to write e.g. "he or she" when I'm trying to showcase how the Swedish pronoun functions grammatically.
As Siloquita said, stating my opinions makes the text much more honest regardless of my position, simply because it lets the reader know how and to what extent I am biased. If I remove that element, the text is neither less nor more subjective, but it's definitely harder to interpret.
Lexical changes (in any languages) don't happen over night, nor can they be dismissed just because it's not adopted by a "majority". Also, it's impossible to write in a way that doesn't create gender bias - remember that every interpretation is ver subjective. HEN is a singular, gender neutral pronoun that's intended to replace HAN/ HON (he/she) for animate nouns. In some cases DEN can also be used for people. In plural it's the old them - DOM (or DE) but DOM can be used in singular form, like its English THEY equivalent.