Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun

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Slate has an article lambasting Sweden's growing enthusiasm for total gender neutrality, and it raises the profile of a move, actually originating in the mid 1960s, to get hen established as a new pronoun meaning "he/she/it", eliminating the forced choice between han "he" and hon "she".

I don't know which I would say is likely to be more difficult: eliminating gender stereotypes and inequalities from society or getting a neologism established by fiat in the set of pronouns in a language. And I don't know Sweden (never been there) and I don't know Swedish (never studied it). So I have very little to say, except that our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family (the Danish spoken by the invaders of northern England about a thousand years ago) and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they.

Apart from that, I don't have anything interesting to say on this potentially very interesting linguistic topic in the news. The obvious thing to do, for anyone who was not a hidebound opponent of the vox populi and all-round blue meanie, would be to open the comments column on the subject so we could hear from some Swedish-competent or Swedish-resident readers, wouldn't it? All it would take is one click on this check-box down here… Oops!

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54 Comments »

  1. D said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 6:47 am

    I'm Swedish, although I'm not sure there's that much to be said about this. It's heavily hyped by the left-leaning media (not saying the media is generally left-leaning but that the left-leaning parts are hyping it), and well, it's a little silly. Examples include a pundit using the pronoun in an editorial about something unrelated, to make it seem more normal. But then of course they just have to follow up with billions of "why I used 'hen' articles".

    There is no equivalent in Swedish to English's gender neutral "they", so you really do have to use "he/she" or similar constructions. For this reason, "hen" MIGHT be accepted, but my money is on this dying away.

  2. Stan said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org reckons it'll be easier to revolutionize bowling.

  3. Faldone said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    I am about to dump almost everything I think I know about Swedish grammar and would welcome any corrections. Whether I retain those corrections remains to be seen.

    In nouns, at least, the masculine and feminine genders have been conflated into the common gender. The personal pronouns retain the masculine/feminine distinction, han/hon, but also have a common gender personal pronoun, den.

    Is this den ever used as a sex neutral pronoun equivalent to English singular they?

  4. Kim said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:16 am

    I'm a Swedish resident (and holder of both Swedish and Australian passports) and of course I'm sceptical about the chances of 'hen' attracting much use. But then again, Sweden has a record of language reform. There have been several successful grammar and usage reforms over the last 150 years. I arrived in Sweden coincidentally with the so-called 'du' reform — the familiar form of second-person address was pushed through, in the name of egalitarianism, to supersede the formal form. (Think the French 'tu' and 'vous'.) Swedes long ago did away with feminine and masculine gender nouns and now have only 'neutral' and 'common'. Sweden has an active and liberal (and respected) Academy to cement spelling and grammar rules. Swedish phone books are confusing for foreigners since V and W are mixed (because there is no difference in pronunciation) as are entries under K C — Carlsson and Karlsson, for example. I'm not sure where 'hen' will take us but love being in a small-language country where language reform is still discussed.

  5. D said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:27 am

    Faldone: No, I don't think so. I can't think of any such use. "Den" is a demonstrative pronoun, like "that". Sweden has two grammatical genders as you say, neutrum and utrum, neither corresponds to gender as in sex in any way. "Den" is uhm… one of those (sorry), and there's "det" which is the same word in the other gender.

    One thing Swedish does have is a gender neutral reflexive pronoun: "sig". Han tvättar sig, hon tvättar sig, de tvättar sig. For this reason, one of the most common uses of gender neutral "they" in English, the possessive as in "Everyone likes their own language best" is automatically gender neutral in Swedish: "Alla gillar sitt eget språk bäst" where "sitt" is a possessive reflexive pronoun.

  6. Lars Karlsson said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:29 am

    I'm Swedish, and I'd like to have 'hen' as an option as it feels better using a neutral word. However, I have never used it in conversation and simply use 'han' instead, so I'm sure It'll die. Change mustn't be a burden.

  7. Ingvar said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    Sweden has, for most intents and purposes, two grammatical genders. They are both neutrals, usually called "neutrum" and "utrum". The utrum gender spans what used to be male, female and reale (the other neutral gender).

    However, in some circumstances, the male grammatical gender shines through. Male objects take -e as suffix on adjectives, at least in conjunction with a determined article, whereas all other take -a. Cf. "den lille pojken" and "den lilla hunden" ("the small boy" and "the small dog").

    Den is frequently used as a genderless pronoun for people, but it reeks of officialness, so I can, of sorts, see why Swedes would prefer a fifth pronoun, even if "den" ought to be sufficient. Det, however, is most definitely not on for a person, it sounds like you're referring to an inanimate object.

  8. Johan Anglemark said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    Stockholm linguist Mikael Parkvall wrote a very good article about this in Svenska Dagbladet two-three weeks ago, where he expressed scepticism at the feminist hopes for this pronoun's effect on attitudes, but basically welcomed the pronoun because it offers more freedom of choice, i.e. a possibility to talk about people without *having* to indicate their gender. He also observed that circa 3/4 of all languages do not have personal pronouns that are marked for gender.

  9. bulbul said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    Here's the link to that op-ed by Mikael Parkvall Johan mentioned. And it's got 293 comments.

  10. M said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    I'm Swedish. My view:

    It is not established "by fiat". While certainly a few ideologues would want it to, those are probably cancelled out by other angry ideologues actively (and in my view just as pointlessly) hating it. But the reason it's become more talked about is because quite a few people actually use it. And not all of those are ideologues who want "hen" to replace "he" and "she". They might also use it as an additional option for the cases where the gender is actually unknown, in order to avoid cumbersome "he or she"-constructions. And as such, it's in fact quite practical. Personally I don't use it, but I don't see any problem if others want to. (I also believe there's some Finnish equivalent that's been around for a while and is more spread, so establishing new pronouns is not impossible.)

    As for Faldone's question: no, "den" is never used for people, unless it's refering back to a word such as "the person". (And in fact, Swedish has two common gender pronouns, "den" and "det", which complicates stuff in unrelated ways.)

  11. Oskar said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    It should be pointed out that that article from Slate highly exaggerates the debate. We are not trying to get rid of genders, our kindergardens aren't getting rid of toy cars and we will still be using "han" (he) and "hon" (she). We're not going to become the fantasy of an early 90s gender studies professor.

    But it is a debate. People are talking about trying to introduce "hen" as a pronoun, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere. It feels very unnatural to use, and I've yet to hear it used naturally in conversation: every time I've read it or seen it, it's been in discussions or articles specifically about the pronoun.

    It's true, we don't have a gender-neutral pronoun like singular they, so it would be useful to have one. But it seems to me like you can't force a thing like this.

  12. Daan said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:01 am

    This reminds me of the Spivak pronouns invented for English in the 1970s. I never knew there are real-life web sites and games using them, though.

    Here's a list of some more invented gender-neutral pronouns.

  13. Joje said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    I'm a computational linguistics grad student in Sweden and there have been a lot of discussion of the word "hen" in the media over here for some time now. However, it seems to me to be a political discussion rather than a linguistic one and based primarily on different assumptions about the purpose of introducing "hen".

    1. "Hen is introduced to replace han and hon." This assumption is the one seemingly most common among opponents of "hen". These opponents usually seem to belong on the right side of the political spectrum in general.

    2. "Hen is introduced to complement han and hon in cases where the sex of the referent is unknown, irrelevant or ambivalent." This assumption is the one seemingly most common among proponents of "hen". These proponents usually seem to belong on the left side of the political spectrum in general.

  14. Thomas said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    I have discussed this briefly with friends active in the LGBT community, and there was only a lukewarm response to "hen". Even the few friends I have who're trans and had operations to change sex (and I would think they would like the pronoun) preferred hon or han.

  15. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    In Ingmar Bergman's Swedish film performance of Mozart's Magic Flute, the German line

    Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann

    uses stressed monosyllables to refer semantically to the two sexes, and the Swedish rendering is

    Han och hon och hon och han

    which is evidence (if any were needed) that Swedish han and hon are as unsuitable as English he and she for use as bound variables in general statements applicable to both sexes.
    Do listen to the aria, which has been posted on YouTube.

  16. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    Swedish seems to be an enlightening example of the conceptual difference between grammatical gender and semantic sex. It has retained some of the ancestral Indo-European gender system, but only in the form of a marked "neuter" category. Neuter concord often ends in -t, evidently cognate with the terminal -d in Latin id and quod, not to mention the terminal -t in English it and what, but the Swedish neuter is not generalized like English it to include all nonhuman referents; it is basically limited to the nouns one has heard one's mother and father using with neuter concord.
    (Swedes, please correct any misstatements in the foregoing.)

  17. Frank said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    Since "he" and "she" are both the same word in Chinese, at least in speech, does anyone have any information about how the Chinese handle living in a gender-neutral society?

  18. languagehat said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    Since "he" and "she" are both the same word in Chinese, at least in speech, does anyone have any information about how the Chinese handle living in a gender-neutral society?

    Non sequitur. The lack of gendered pronouns has nothing to do with "a gender-neutral society," and in fact there is no such society in the world.

    As for invented pronouns, they never work. The solution for English is singular they, which will prevail despite the yowls of the peevers because it is rooted in the language and its expansion in use is natural and necessary. Apparently there is no such easy solution for Swedish, which is a pity.

  19. fs said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    Since "he" and "she" are both the same word in Chinese, at least in speech, does anyone have any information about how the Chinese handle living in a gender-neutral society?

    Wait what? Maybe they're homophones, but they're not the same word when written. The radicals are different. One has the 'man' radical, one has the 'woman' radical, and the third (for objects) has no radical and looks a little different from the other two.

  20. Frank said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:58 am

    I always forget how hard it is to effectively be facetious in writing.

  21. L'Esprit de l'Escalier said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    @Frank:

    As Johan Anglemark reminded us above,

    circa 3/4 of all languages do not have personal pronouns that are marked for gender.

    As someone else has pointed out, languages differ not in what they can say, but in what they must say. In English it's hard to tell a story without incidentally declaring your protagonist's sex, but pefectly easy to tell a story without offering a grammatical clue to anyone's race. The grammar is fully race-neutral.

  22. Rodger C said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    @fs: I believe the graphic difference in Chinese pronouns was introduced in recent times in imitation of Western models.

  23. Xmun said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    The Maori third-person singular pronoun "ia" can refer to either a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl). So there's a ready-made gender-neutral pronoun available for borrowing. But you have to remember to put the particle "a" before it in certain circumstances.

  24. LDavidH said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Interesting! As a Swede living in the UK, I had missed out on the "hen" idea. I sometimes find myself using "de/dem" (they/them) as a singular, obviously influenced by English, and I think it would be nice if that caught on. Judging from other Swedes commenting here, however, that seems to be unlikely.

  25. michael farris said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    fs: "One has the 'man' radical, one has the 'woman' radical, and the third (for objects) has no radical and looks a little different from the other two."

    Actually one has the 'human being' radical and the other has the woman/female radical. So the opposition (graphically) isn't male/female but human/female.

    If they absolutely wanted to introduce an unneeded gender distinctionn I do wish they _had_ used the man/male radical for 'he'.

  26. D said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    You don't have to look as far as Maori for gender neutral pronouns. You just have to take the ferry from Stockholm to Finland, where they have the gender neutral "hän".

  27. Mary Kuhner said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    It seems to me that pronouns do arise, and they arise either by invention, by co-opting an existing word in the language, or by borrowing–what other options are there?

    I would be really interested to hear where pronouns in European languages have come from, and what the distribution of those three processes is. English does seem inclined to co-opt existing words, seen with the old adaptation of formal 2nd plural into 2nd singular ("you" replacing "thou"), and the slightly more recent adaptation of 3rd plural into 3rd singular ("they" replacing "he or she" when gender is unspecified). But prior to that, the pronouns came from somewhere–where? Are they usually very old words?

  28. david said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    @fs (@Frank) There is a plaque next to West Lake in Hang Zhou commemorating the person who created the new gendered characters to facilitate translation of European literature. I think it happened in the 1920s.

  29. Carl said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    @Frank,

    I laughed.

    @Fs,

    Rodger C is correct, "she" is a recent coinage in Chinese.

    Japanese is similar. Intro to Japanese textbooks list "she" as "kanojo" but "kanojo" was made up as a means of translating "she" in Western novels. It's a pretty ugly coinage too, since it combines the classical native word "kano" (which means "that") with the pseudo-Chinese "jo" (meaning "woman"). Mixing classical and Chinese like that is pretty inelegant. In my opinion, "ano ko" is a much better way of saying "she" in Japanese… except it can also refer to children and it implies distance. Oh well. Kanojo itself is pretty flawed as a "pronoun" since it can also mean "my girlfriend."

    In general, Japanese is best spoken with as few pronouns as possible.

  30. Bill W said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    'the slightly more recent adaptation of 3rd plural into 3rd singular ("they" replacing "he or she" when gender is unspecified).'

    Actually, singular "they/them/their" is much older than the replacement of "thou" by "you" (18th – early 19th centuries).

    http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html

    There are numerous discussions of this in Language Log, too.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    From a friend who wishes to remain anonymous:

    My husband has a relative who has lived for decades and raised a family in Sweden. When D and K [his Swedish wife] were expecting their first grandchild, K explained to us that Swedish has two distinct words for grandmother (they translate as mother's mother and father's mother) and, likewise, two words for grandfather. It is ironic that a language full of that level of distinction might (or might not) gain a gender-neutral pronoun.

    I'm also reminded of the reason Ms. was introduced (to eliminate the distinction between married and unmarried women, on a par with Mr. being used for married and unmarried men, for the purpose of ending job discrimination against married women). Somewhere along the line, the masses began using Ms. as an abbreviation for Miss. Said masses do not understand why I am Ms. XX-YY [VHM: the hyphenated combination of my friend's surname and her husband's surname] even though I am married.

    It'll be interesting to see what has become of Sweden's new pronoun a few decades down the line.

  32. Circe said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

    L'Esprit de l'Escalier:

    In English it's hard to tell a story without incidentally declaring your protagonist's sex, but pefectly easy to tell a story without offering a grammatical clue to anyone's race.

    Hindi offers a peculiar contrast. Personal pronouns in Hindi are gender neutral (vah for both 'he' and 'she'), but verbs are marked for gender (and the auxiliary verb "hai" (corresponding to "is") is not marked for gender in the present tense, but is marked in the past tense). So even though pronouns are not marked for gender, it is completely impossible to tell a story in Hindi without revealing the gender of the protagonists.

  33. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    I think "tampering" with language may be easier than changing stereotypes, but it depends in more or less obvious ways on the specific lexical and syntactic resources a language offers (as can be seen from some of the comments above) — not "what must be expressed", but "what does not necessarily have to be expressed, but still usually is". Of course, this requires awareness of what needs to/can be done. I'm afraid I don't have much to say about Swedish, but here's an example from another IE language that does gender.

    Once upon a time, I was involved in the creation of an e-learning system for Polish schools. The content was science, and it was thought :) that there is a stereotype that boys are more interested in that kind of stuff… So, a conscious decision was made :) to make the "talking head" avatar that was part of the system female. (This is the "let's change stereotypes" bit. Marvel at the passive voice.)

    But then it turned out that the people who authored the texts (most of them female, BTW) followed the default system in Polish, where the default 3rd person reference (here, to the student) is masculine. Along the lines of man 'human'. However, nobody noticed. (That's the first part of the awareness bit.)

    I was the last link in the authoring chain, and I pointed this out. The solution was relatively easy. Polish is mostly pro-drop, and it only marks verbs for gender in the past tense. (Cf. Circe's comment on Hindi above — which, BTW, was the motivation for my comment.) So, most of the time, all it would take would be to avoid past-tense 3rd-person references to the student. Seemingly, that was too subtle for non-linguist proficient Polish authors. Had it been a question of pronouns, like e.g. in Swedish, it would have been much more conspicuous, I think. (That's the second part of the awareness bit.)

    In the end, despite my pointing out, I still had to "correct" quite a bit, because the authors seemingly couldn't remember. But I think that, with proper policies, this is something that could be done "by fiat", and it would be much less conspicuous than a new pronoun, or even the German LehrerInnen etc. Whether it matters, of course, is a separate question.

    Sorry for the length of this.

  34. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:04 am

    Oops, correction. In my previous comment, I meant 2nd pers. past, not 3rd; what on earth was I thinking? Can't even count to three… The source is addressing the user in the 2nd person, as is often done in user interfaces.

    But there are more subtle cases, and, ironically, they may originate in translation from perfectly gender-neutral English. Take official paperwork and things such as prepared by: or approved by:. For some reason, they usually get translated as przygotował or zatwierdził, 3rd person masculine, past, active*. Funny, since idiomatic Polish used to prefer deverbal nouns in these cases, along the lines of Approval: John Smith.

    * As far as I can tell, this isn't because of some anti-passive sentiment; the by forms simply don't sound right in Polish in this context; maybe because the participles would have to be gender marked, and it's not too clear what gender to apply… Vicious circle.

  35. a George said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:32 am

    when I first grew up in a Swedish-Danish-Austrian language environment, the word in Swedish for "man" as in "huMANinity", "människa", was female, "människan, hon". I cannot believe that feminists would want to change that. On the other hand, if you were to use "hen" you avoid circumscription when you want to address both genders: "han/hon" looks clumsy. The Danish engineering Weekly "Ingeniøren" (previously "Ingeniørens Ugeblad", tried to introduce a similar simplification in Danish "hyn". It did not catch on.

  36. Bob Violence said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:48 am

    For Chinese readers, there's a long article on the history of 她 "she" here. The primary credit is given to linguist/poet Liu Bannong, who proposed the idea in article published in August 1920. However, his suggestion that 她 should also be pronounced differently — tuo, vs. 他 ta — didn't catch on, and the entire controversy tends to confirm that it's easier to change people's writing than their speech: earlier proposals to use 伊 yi as a feminine pronoun failed, partly because Mandarin speakers regarded it as a classical character and it was alien to their colloquial speech. I wonder if hen will similarly find more acceptance in written Swedish than in the spoken form.

  37. Mittens said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    The German "Binnen-I" (an upper-case I used to reduce words that would normally have an -er (male, or disputedly inclusive) or an -erin (female) ending to a single form; e.g. LenkerIn instead of Lenker and/or Lenkerin, for driver) has been introduced, not quite by fiat but certainly as an artificial measure, and is doing moderately well – though it is primarily a writing convention. Its effect on the spoken language – some people have adopted a new pronuciation with a glottal stop instead of saying the long form of both male and female forms (Lenker und/oder Lenkerin) and really a change in the spoken language.

    However it remains clumsy because we don't have a good solution for the articles and have to include both, as der/die LenkerIn, etc.

    The main benefit may be that it makes people consciously try to find other gender-neutral formulations that avoid the need for a noun of this type.

  38. Anthony said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    Thomas:

    Even the few friends I have who're trans and had operations to change sex (and I would think they would like the pronoun) preferred hon or han.

    I would expect the preference for gender markers. Having gone to all the trouble (hormone treatments, drastic surgery) to make the transition, being referred to by the gendered pronoun of one's choice would provide validation of one's efforts to make the transition.

    Frank – I'm surprised that people missed your facetiousness. I was amused.

  39. Mr Punch said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    @ Jarek Weckwerth – It's interesting that Poles should have difficulty with the concept of a woman scientist, as there is a well-known Polish example.

  40. Leonardo Boiko said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    Wasn’t the set of personal pronouns in Modern Standard Japanese (“boku” for young males, “watashi” as neutral etc) pretty much established by fiat?

  41. LDavidH said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    @a George: As far as I know (and I am Swedish), "människa" (human being) is still feminine in Swedish, so that "When God created människan, he made her male and female". I always found the English-language rage against using "he/him" about the human being funny, since we always used "she/her" and never thought anything of it. In Norwegian, I believe the same word is neuter – what does that say about gender roles in Norway??

  42. D said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    LDavidH: "människa" isn't grammatically feminine, as the feminine grammatical gender doesn't exist in Swedish. Using "hon" rather than "han" is a convention. It's the same for time, which also is referred to as "hon".

  43. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    Swedish has (or used to have) a tendency to treat nouns in -a as feminine and nouns in -e as masculine. Människa (human being) seems to be the stickiest of these. Klocka (clock, watch) is feminine when indicating time ("What time is it?" "She's half-past ten."), but utrum when indicating the object. Blomma (flower) and äggula (egg-yolk) also used to be "hon" when I lived in Sweden, but that was 50 years ago. Oddly, I don't see any mention of this aspect of grammar in either the Norstedts dictionary or handbook.

  44. Ellen K. said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    Kinda like ships and cars aren't grammatically feminine in English, even though we sometimes refer to them as "she"?

  45. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    @ Mr Punch: I wasn't saying anyone would have difficulty imagining women scientists. I said there is a stereotype that boys are more interested in that kind of stuff.

    BTW, the original version of the system was American, and the recommendation to have a female avatar came from the original, along with the "motivation".

  46. M said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    @ D: Well, no. There are or were grammatical genders in Swedish, though people mostly stopped using them long ago. (And there were debates about that as well…) They were however retained for certain words, such as those mentioned. The grammatical genders are also still more used in some dialects.

  47. Jim said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    Why are they using that particular spelling? Shouldn't it be "hän", or would that be too downscale?

    "There are or were grammatical genders in Swedish, though people mostly stopped using them long ago. "

    Swedish still has grammatical genders. They just don't happen to be masculine and feminine. That doesn't mean they aren't genders.

    So they don't align with the sex-gendered pronouns. But since the -t gender nouns are in fact almost all inaimate, people do in fact use "det" for them.

    "Wasn’t the set of personal pronouns in Modern Standard Japanese (“boku” for young males, “watashi” as neutral etc) pretty much established by fiat?"

    Aren't pronouns pretty much and open and amorphous class in Japanese, to the point of being optional (and not just in some pro-drop kind of way)? That makes the situation rather different.

  48. Robin said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    Forget stereotypes — what nobody seems to be acknowledging is that not everybody identifies as male or female, so a third-person singular gender neutral pronoun is kind of necessary.

  49. LDavidH said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    @D and @M: I guess technically you can't say that "människa" is feminine in standard Swedish, since masculine and feminine merged a long (?) time ago into "reale" or "utrum". It was, however, feminine before the merger, and is referred to as "hon" (she) for that reason. And there are dialects where the merger never happened, where there is a definite grammatical difference between masculine "en pôjk – pôjken" and feminine "e jänt – jänta" (examples from Värmland, western Sweden).

  50. D said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    Jim: Not sure why it should be hän rather than hen. In both cases the vowel choice is arbitrary. Hen is slightly easier to say.

    Robin: A lot of people identify as a lot of things. Sometimes it gets named and a new word enters the language. Pronouns are a stubborn word class though.

  51. LDavidH said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    @D: Actually, if (as I assume) the vowel is short, they would be pronounced exactly the same by most Swedes (just like "vän" and "Sven", or "hemma" and "hämma"), although there are dialects where short e and ä are differentiated. (The long varieties have only merged in Stockholm and surrounding areas, AFAIK.)

  52. D said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    LDavidH: Yes, you are probably right there. I've never heard anyone actually say "hen", but presumably the vowel would be short.

  53. Carol said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    It is interesting because in Finnish hän means both 'she' and 'he' and 'se' means 'it' but 'se' is used colloquially for 'he' 'she' and 'it'. More interesting is that hän most likely comes from Swedish (Finland was under Swedish rule for quite a while). Too bad Swedish didn't borrow much from Finnish!

  54. hän said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    Sorry I'm late.

    Finnish has no grammatical or natural gender, true, and the third person singular pronoun "hän" is genderless.

    However, in experimental studies with native Finns (children with average age eight & high-school students; N= 507) the referent of "hän" has been more often perceived as male than as female in contexts where sex of referent is unknown. E.g. when asked to illustrate with human drawings text paragraphs with "hän" doing something "gender-neutral", such as watching TV, small boys and high-school students produced more male than female figures. Small girls in the studies usually perceived "hän" as female.

    Furthermore, the examples given on the use of "hän" in Finnish language dictionaries tend to represent the referent as male. In foreign language dictionaries (e.g. Finnish-English), "hän" is typically translated as if the masculine pronoun (e.g. "he") was the primary meaning: the masculine form is given first and the feminine second, the feminine is often in brackets, the example phrases include more male than female referents, etc.

    In addition to "hän", genderless human terms in Finnish such as "ihminen", 'human being', have been perceived in a male biased way in experimental studies. Lack of grammatical gender does not guarantee gender-neutrality or absence of sexism in terms with person reference.

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