The Swedish Dictionary Adds a Gender-Neutral Pronoun to its Glossary

Linguists have finally incoporated the pronoun “hen” into the Swedish language.

Photo by Flickr user Sandra Fauconnier.

Sweden, that Scandinavian country known mostly for its fish-shaped candy and for being birthplace of IKEA, will officially be adding a gender-neutral pronoun to its dictionary come April. Members of the Swedish Academy—a Very Important Swedish institution that not only publishes two Swedish dictionaries but is also responsible for deciding annually who wins a Nobel Prize in Literature—decided this year that they will be including the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” among the 13,000 new words in the Svenska Akademiens ordlista (SAOL). The single-volume glossary is regarded as the singular authority on Swedish spelling.

While the English-speaking world drags its feet trying to decide how to implement gender-neutrality into its language, Sweden has informally embraced “hen” as part of its parlance since the 1960s. The word was originally conceived in an attempt to refine the Swedish language by linguist Hans Karlgren. Since then it has become far more politically charged, co-opted as a cause for feminist groups and then as a necessary accomodation for Sweden’s increasingly visible transgender community in the early 2000s. In 2002, the pronoun was included in the National Encyclopedia. Proponents of the term say it can be used when the gender of a person is unclear or irrelevant to the text.

Language constructs much of our reality, and gender exists because we construct it, on a daily basis, through performance as well as speech. According to SAOL’s editors, these kinds of changes can help transform our realities as much as they can help change the way we relate our realities.

"Words are always really important. This is about how one describes reality and this in turn can have different motives," said the SAOL’s editor-in-chief, Professor Sven-Göran Malmgren.

Swedish linguists hope to tackle racism in their language as well—in their new edition, they also offer alternatives to historically racist terms that refer to black people, gypsies, and Sweden’s indigenous people.

Julian Meehan

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