Feature Story

The “Hen” debate in Sweden and the power of words 

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In a democratic society words are the weapons we use to achieve change and words have therefore significant potential power. Words are not just symbols to communicate with, they also structure our way of thinking and make sense of our worlds. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein aptly summarizes this line of thought when he said “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. George Orwell described in the dystopian novel 1984 how the aim of “The Party” and Big Brother was to create a language, “New Speak” that did not contain any words with which one could express or even consider dissent. Words can limit the range of thought but they can also expand our minds. A recent example of the power of words and the great political significance people attribute to new words is the “Hen” debate in Sweden

The task of mainstreaming gender and moving towards greater gender equality does not only demand political and social reform, it is also a matter of reforming the language. What is mainstreaming if not changing the discourse, the way of speaking about gender issues? However, this cannot be achieved forcibly - on command in a top down fashion, but must grow organically from within the language and in the everyday life of citizens.

Hen is a gender-neutral personal pronoun in Swedish intended to be used instead of the gender-specific hon ("she") or han ("he"). It was first suggested in Sweden in 1966 but has only in recent years gained momentum, and is now slowly becoming a part of the Swedish language. One might think such a word would be widely welcomed and used in situations when gender is unknown or immaterial. Some Swedes however feel that the word attempts to erase differences between the sexes and that if for example used in kindergarten, will lead to confusion on the issues of gender identity. Indeed, there are those who would like to see the use of this gender-neutral word as a way to create a more gender-neutral society. Words structure our way of thinking and a new gender-neutral word will perhaps make us less obsessed with the labeling of others as “He” or “She”.

On the one hand, we have those who argue that the use of the word “Hen” is a form of feminist ideological indoctrination meant to conceal the real existing differences between the sexes. On the other hand, we have those who see it as a way to liberate the individual from the straitjacket of gender roles. The cries for banning “He” or “She” and replace it with “Hen” altogether are few – practically non-existent. Therefore the resistance generated by this little word can be a little hard to understand. No one will be hindered from using “He” or “She” if they want to. But words have power and it does matter what words we use. When the Swedish journal “Nöjesguiden” decided to only use “Hen” in one issue in 2012, it was a political statement.

Time will tell if “Hen” will survive and as with all words, its survival will depend on whether people will find it useful or not. Without added value and functionality, a word will not survive long even with ideological and political back up. And since “Hen” fills a gap and saves space in the Swedish language, it is probably here to stay. Maybe it will also help empower the Swedes to more freely define who they are without having to fit to predefined gender roles.