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The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

So why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?

Simon Usborne
Thursday 26 March 2015 21:00 GMT
Now "hen" can be used when the gender is unknown
Now "hen" can be used when the gender is unknown (Rex Features)

There is linguistic joy in Sweden among the transgender community and campaigners against clunkiness. After years of debate and deliberation, the editor-in-chief of the Swedish Academy's official dictionary, SAOL, has added the word "hen" to its new edition because he or sh- (oh wait, should that be "s/he", or "they…?") recognises the need for a gender-neutral pronoun.

In Swedish, "han" means he and "hon" means she. Now "hen" can be used when the gender is unknown, the hen is neither a han nor a hon (or is in transition), or the writer thinks that gender is irrelevant. "It's quite simple," Sven-Goran Malmgren, the (male, it turns out) editor, said yesterday. "It is a word which is in use and without a doubt fills a function."

Bully for Sweden, but where's our hen? And what would it be? "He" and "she" are different enough that a han-hon-hen progression is not so clear. So, if we accept that "he or she" and "s/he" are too cumbersome for words, we are stuck with the compromise of "they" (see also: "their" for his/her, and "them" for him/her). English dictionaries accept the use of the third-person-plural pronoun as a singular pronoun, but the biggest pedants don't like it, even when that makes them look silly.

In a test paper for US college students last month, the snooty Princeton Review (an educational services company) listed ungrammatical song lyrics. When they included Taylor Swift's "Somebody tells you they love you, you got to believe 'em", she responded online: "Not the right lyrics at all pssshhh. You had one job, test people. One job." The line actually ends: "…you're gonna believe them." Princeton admitted its mistake but made it worse by suggesting the plural "them" should not be used after the singular "somebody". Pedantic – and wrong.

An English "hen" would have avoided such dispute, and the instinct among writers to build sentences around this linguistic sinkhole. Yet attempts to find one, spanning more than 150 years and 100 words, have failed. Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, details them all in a 2010 blog post. He begins with an 1884 article in the New-York Commercial Advertiser which recalls how "ne", "nis", "nir" and "hiser" had been briefly used around 1850. Later in the 19th century, "hi", "le" and "ip" were also proposed. "Thon", a blend of "that" and "one" with the same "th" sound as in "then", briefly bothered dictionaries.

More recently, science fiction has proposed: co; xie; per; and en. In real life, the list of pronoun fails also includes: hes; hem; ir; ons; e; ith; lim; ler; lers, as well as the portmanteaux: himer; hasher; shis; shim; heer; and hie. Whatever their inspiration, including more recent, progressive desires for gender-neutral language, no word in English has stuck. Why? Because they look stupid.

"Artificial coinages are rarely successful," adds Professor John Mullan, the head of English at University College London. "Language is also not very susceptible to campaigns." But it is in Sweden, where "hen" emerged in the 1960s as a feminist alternative to the default male pronoun. It then fizzled out, but transgender Swedes revived it in about 2000. Debate intensified in 2012, when a children's author published Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and the Monster Dog) using only "hen". As pressure on the Swedish Academy grew, sceptics downplayed the importance of language in society, pointing out that in China, a country not known for its progressive approach to gender, Mandarin has always offered the neutral "ta".

Tell that to Chelsea Manning. The imprisoned WikiLeaker – and private born as Bradley – took grammar all the way to the US Army Criminal Court of Appeals earlier this month. She won the right not only to be called Chelsea, but also to be referred to in all court proceedings using neutral or feminine pronouns. Her reaction? In Swedish: Hen var glad.

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