Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Gender-neutral pronoun debate rocks Sweden
Sweden's tradition of gender equality has famously put more mums in the workplace while rising numbers of dads stay at home. Now advocates have a new frontier: they're pushing for a gender-neutral pronoun, "hen", to be added to "han" (he) and "hon" (she).
"There's almost nothing left to do in the field of gender equality, so people are suggesting increasingly strange ideas," said independent journalist Elise Claesson, partly amused and partly irritated by the debate.
The word "hen" was coined in the 1960s when the ubiquitous use of "han" (he) became politically incorrect. It was about "simplifying the language" and avoiding the clumsy "han/hon" (s/he) construction, said linguist Karin Milles.
Another linguist, Mikael Parkvall, is less convinced, however.
"The notion that language determines our way of thinking is very popular, but those of us who are specialists are pretty sceptical," he said.
"The link between language and thought is not very strong, and you don't become more gender equal by using a neutral pronoun," he added, citing Mandarin, the language of male-dominated China, as an example of a language that has such a pronoun.
Wallner said he believes "hen" will soon be as free of controversy as the 1970s decision to abolish the plural form for addressing strangers and instead use the more informal singular.
I am pleased to see that a lot of Swedes regard the whole thing as tedious. Still, "Ms" as an alternative to "Mrs" and "Miss" seems to have caught on in the English-speaking world so you never know.
The last paragraph of the article above will be incomprehensible to people who speak English only but it is a huge step in European terms. The polite plural is a feature of all European languages I thought -- but not in Sweden now. Linguistic change is clearly possible but whether it achieves anything other than satisfying busybodies is the question.