The Swedish language has a new pronoun: hen, which is meant to be a gender-neutral alternative to han or hon (he or she). Technically hen, which was most likely inspired by the Finnish prounoun hän, has been around for several decades, but recently it’s become a preferred pronoun in some LGBT circles and is attracting attention from the mainstream culture. The pronoun is already controversial, provoking hundreds
of comments online, and now a new front in the debate has opened up with the upcoming publication of two new children’s books: Kivi och Monsterhund, which features hen, and Känn med hen, which is critical.
Språkrådet (the Language Council of Sweden) recently updated their language guidelines to include usage of hen. According to Språkrådet hen may be used by people who wish to avoid using traditional gender designations about themselves or others. Some people use hen to avoid wordier locutions such as han eller hon (he or she), although the Language Council does not agree with this usage.
It will be interesting to see whether hen gains any traction in the mainsteam media or culture. The Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan has adopted a cautious policy, using the pronoun for interview subjects who prefer to use it about themselves, but not in other cases. I have no idea whether a conscious introduction of the pronoun by preschool teachers, parents or children’s book authors will make any difference in the living language. The English gender-neutral pronoun thon never caught on, and I had never seen the modern equivalents ze and co until I looked into the pronoun issue. Perhaps the furor will die down as quickly as it blew up once the difficulty of reforming something as basic to a language as the pronoun system becomes apparent, but in the meantime it is fascinating to watch this linguistic experiment in action.