Chalk Talk: If anyone knows a gender-neutral pronoun, can he or she speak up?
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 30 January 2013
It all started when scientist Robert T. Bywater became frustrated, when drawing up contracts, that he was obliged to write in "he or she" when referring to individuals. That was because, in English, we have no gender-neutral pronoun to describe them.
In Sweden, though, where he lives for a good part of the year, they do – bolstered by the efforts of a new children's publishing company.
Olika, run by two women – Marie Tomicic and Karin Salmson – uses the word "hen" as a gender-neutral alternative to "han" (he) and "hon" (she). However, the word's usage use in the Swedish language first emerged in the daily newspaper of Uppsala in Sweden way back in 1966.
Now Robert, who is aged 72 and has retired, would like to launch a campaign to give the English language its own gender-neutral pronoun (he suggests "hey" – "they" without the "t"), not least because he would like to see their children's books translated into the English language. One has a "hen" as a main character, if you follow my gist.
He approached the Oxford English Dictionary about his idea but was told it is merely reflecting new words that have come into the English language rather than creating them itself.
Robert, who says he is devoting his retirement to trying to solve intractable problems, now wants to launch a campaign for a new gender-neutral English pronoun. (Finnish has one – "han" – but does not have an equivalent for "he or she", which creates its own problems, he adds.) He also suggests "hem" as an alternative to "him or her" and "heirs" as an alternative to "his or hers"
So if anybody has any alternatives to Robert's suggestion or knows a way round publishing Olika's books in English, please come forward. One way the campaign could succeed, I suppose, is if enough people got round to using the word in their everyday conversations. Then perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary could include it as one of the new words to enter the English language.
"Hey" – that's not a bad idea!
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