Swedish Language: a Gender-Neutral Pronoun in a Natural Gender Language

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Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish language. Translation from and into Swedish language.Credit: Baltic Media
The implementation of the gender-fair language is often associated with negative reactions and hostile attacks on people who propose a change. This was also the case in Sweden in 2012 when a third gender-neutral pronoun hen was proposed as an addition to the already existing Swedish pronouns for she (hon) and he (han). The pronoun hen can be used both generically when gender is unknown or irrelevant, and as a transgender pronoun for people who categorize themselves outside the gender dichotomy. In this article, we review the process from 2012 to 2015. 
No other language has so far added a third gender-neutral pronoun, existing parallel with two gendered pronouns, that actually have reached the broader population of language users. This makes the situation in Sweden unique. 
We present data on attitudes toward hen during the past 4 years and analyze how time is associated with the attitudes in the process of introducing hen to the Swedish language. In 2012 the majority of the Swedish population was negative to the word, but already in 2014 there was a significant shift in more positive attitudes. Time was one of the strongest predictors of attitudes also when other relevant factors were controlled for. 
The actual use of the word also increased, although to a lesser extent than the attitudes shifted. We conclude that new words challenging the binary gender system evoke hostile and negative reactions, but also that attitudes can normalize rather quickly. We see this finding very positive and hope it could motivate language amendments and initiatives for gender-fair language, although the first responses may be negative.
Language is seen as an important tool for determining gender, i.e., if something is being perceived as feminine or masculine (Boroditsky et al., 2003Stahlberg et al., 2007), where gender most often imposes a dichotomy (Ansara and Hegarty, 2014). This implies that language also could be used as a tool for establishing gender-equality and to challenge gender perceptions. In Western culture and languages, actions toward gender-fair languages have primarily focused on making women more salient and reducing the so-called male bias (for a review, see: Stahlberg et al., 2007). For example, in the seventies, the feminist movement questioned the use of a generic masculine pronoun to refer to people in general (Moulton et al., 1978MacKay, 1980Phillips, 1981Murdock and Forsyth, 1985).
The literature describes two types of gender-fair language: “balancing/feminization’ and ‘neutralization.’ Feminization implies the use of gender-appropriate forms, and is more often used in languages with grammatical gender (e.g., German, French), for example by adding feminine versions to masculine titles (e.g., Lehrer/Lehrerinnen for masculine and feminine teachers; Stahlberg et al., 20012007). Neutralization is more commonly employed in so called ‘natural gender languages’ (e.g., English, Swedish, Norwegian), and implies that gender-neutral forms are preferred over gendered forms. Examples are using the word parents instead of mum and dad, and humankind instead of mankind (at least in official records).
In Swedish, a recent action was to introduce the gender-neutral third person pronoun, hen, as a complement to the Swedish words for she (hon) and he (han) (Ledin and Lyngfelt, 2013Milles, 2013Bäck et al., 2015). In current time the word first appeared in 2012, figuring in a children’s book. In July 2014, it was announced that hen should be included in 2015th edition of The Swedish Academy Glossary (SAOL) constituting the (unofficial) norm of the Swedish language (Benaissa, 2014Fahl, 2014), after what had been a long, sometimes offensive and heated debate in the media. No other language has so far added a third gender-neutral pronoun that actually has reached the broader population of language users, which makes the situation in Sweden unique. This article presents a review of the process on how hen became implemented, including the arguments that were put forward from opponents and proponents, respectively. We present data on attitudes toward hen during the recent 4 years and study how time is associated with the attitudes and actual use of the word.
The word hen is very similar to, and pronounced as, the Finnish gender-neutral pronoun hän with the same meaning, i.e., describing any person no matter their gender – although the language of Sweden’s cultural neighbor Finland belongs to the language group without gendered third-person pronouns (Stahlberg et al., 2007Prewitt-Freilino et al., 2012). Even though the debate about hen took off in 2012, the word was first mentioned as early as in the 1960’s (Milles, 2013), when linguists proposed that a gender-neutral pronoun would be a more rational choice in comparison to a generic he or using double forms (i.e., he and/or she). However, these discussions were more of an academic nature limited to small linguistic communities and did not reach a broader public (Milles, 2013). In the beginning of the 21st century people in LGBT-communities (Lesbian-, Gay-, Bi-, Trans-) began to use hen, both for people outside the gender dichotomy and as a way of diminishing the salience of gender. A similar movement has been found in the English language, among linguists and among transgender communities, where more than 80 different forms of gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed. Today, one trend in English is to use gender-neutral pronouns such as zie and hir (Baron, 1986Ansara and Hegarty, 2014Love, 2014), although these words have not been very widespread outside the LGBT-communities (Crawford and Fox, 2007).

Marie Gustafsson Sendén,1,* Emma A. Bäck,2 and Anna Lindqvist3