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!
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."
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!!
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.