Global Lingo Blog

Swedish hens and trying to banish gender

A recent article by Slate discusses how many people in Sweden are trying to banish gender in language to minimise gender stereotyping.

The idea is to replace the pronouns han and hon, “he” and “she”, with a single pronoun, hen.

However, The Economist disagrees; they suggest there is just a small movement striving towards language equality and the whole of Sweden are not on a combined quest to achieve this:

I’m afraid Slate, as is too often the case, overplayed the story in the subheadline “A country tries to banish gender.” “A few radicals try to banish gender while the rest of the country grapples with it in new ways” would have been the more boring, but accurate, headline.

Sweden’s first ever gender-neutral children’s book has now been published, telling the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for ‘‘hen’s’’ birthday; as well as featuring other gender-neutral words. The author sees the use of hen as an experiment that offers an alternative to using han and hon, another choice.

Replacing han and hon

Hen was originally intended to act similarly like the singular they, when gender is unknown. But some want to replace han and hon entirely!

This would be a little bit like saying:

Steve left their jacket here. They’re going to really be cold outside without it

Mary is getting bored in their marriage and is considering leaving their husband

Sweden is said to be the most gender-equal country in the world.

But this is not enough for some!

There are those that wish the country to be gender-neutral not just gender-equal.

This has led to a few unique (and rather strange) precautions to ensure there are no distinctions at all between sexes:

  • Activists are lobbying for children to be able to be called gender-neutral names. That parents should be able to choose any name for their child whether it be Richard for a girl or Charlotte for a boy!
  • A Swedish toy catalogue recently featured a girl wearing denim riding a yellow tractor while a boy pushed a pink pram dressed as spider man.
  • A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores.
  • Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so you don’t have to categorize yourself as either male or female.
  • Several preschools have banished references to pupils’ genders, they’re now ‘buddies’ instead!
  • One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys “gender-coded” them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys.

However not everyone is so keen on the gender-neutral campaigns, with some claiming the activists are simply feminists insisting on destroying language.

Reducing the emphasis on gender within language is not unique to Sweden. In France and Spain there have been recent campaigns to create language which does not define people by their sex.

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