The little Swedish pronoun that could
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode
Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick Cox here. And here’s a special guest. Not really.
Demi Lovato: This is 4D with Demi Lovato.
Patrick Cox: So Demi Lovato dropped this promo the other day for a new podcast. And made news.
Demi Lovato: Over the past year and a half I’ve been doing some healing and self-reflective work. And through this work I’ve had the revelation that I identify as non-binary. With that said, I’ll officially be changing my pronouns to they/them.
Patrick Cox: It’s funny, it’s still news when a celeb changes their pronouns. But it’s not the news it might have been a few years ago. It doesn’t seem that radical or provocation, not quite the pearl-clutching moment that it was in years past. But there are plenty of people who still have issues with they when it’s used this way, as a non-gendered singular pronoun. People still get mad about it. Card on the table, I’m fine with they. So consider what I’m about to say as a thought experiment.
If they is too clumsy — just too busy meaning other things — what if we found another word that means the same? A pronoun indicating singularity: ungendered singularity. And instead of searching for an English word that might fit that bill, what if we borrowed that word from another language? And just started using it ourselves? If you’re thinking, “Nah, that’s a a bit of silly thought experiment,” well, in Sweden it isn’t a thought experiment. It’s what they did.
From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Today, the little pronoun that could. Back in 2018, Nina Porzucki became obsessed with this word — how it changed a language, and maybe also changed some attitudes. Maybe. Here’s Nina.
Nina Porzucki: In 2012, Olika a little known publishing company in Sweden, put out a new picture book, Kivi & Monsterdog, that sparked a national conversation.
Sound of Swedish TV and radio station debates
Nina Porzucki: Marie Tomicic co-founded Olika Press. She was surprised by all the attention. After all Kivi & Monsterdog was a pretty simple story.
Marie Tomicic: It’s about Kivi waking up and wanting a dog and their parents and everything say oh this will be difficult.
Nina Porzucki: But it wasn’t the plot that fired up the nation. No, what stoked the flames was one single word: hen.
Marie Tomicic: It is about Kivi and where you know we use the hen.
Nina Porzucki: The titular character Kivi used the Swedish gender neutral pronoun hen. H-E-N.
Marie Tomicic: Kivi can be a girl, it can be a boy. It can be, you know intersex. That is up to the reader if they want to gender the person.
Nina Porzucki: Kivi & Monsterdog was one of the first books to use hen. Traditionally in Swedish, there are gendered pronouns. You know, his and her. Gender neutral hen is relatively new on the scene. In fact, Marie herself had only heard about the pronoun in 2010, two years before publishing Kivi & Monsterdog.
Marie Tomicic: And then I just said to my colleague, “You know this hen, this word, this pronoun, it’s amazing. We need to be the first publishing company publishing this book. This is the future.”
Nina Porzucki: I’ve got Patrick Cox here in the studio with me. Patrick, Marie Tomicic actually sent me a copy of Kivi & Monsterdog, the book that erupted the linguistic debate in Sweden in 2012. And I do have a copy except it’s at home. I keep forgetting to bring it into the studio.
Patrick Cox: So you brought me here but not the book.
Nina Porzucki: I brought you here. But we gotta get this going. So I have some pictures here and I want you to check out.
Patrick Cox: Oh, right. A lot of Swedish. The drawings are really nice.
Nina Porzucki: There’s Kivi, and there’s all their dogs.
Patrick reads in cartoonish Swedish. Nina laughs.
Nina Porzucki: Is that your best Swedish impression?
Patrick Cox: That’s my best Swedish impression.
Nina Porzucki: I’ll save everybody right now and let’s have a little bit of the book read by the Swede. I enlisted Karin Milles. She’s a professor of Swedish at Soderton University.
Karin Milles reads an excerpt in Swedish
Nina Porzucki: See, it’s very beautiful and melodic.
Patrick Cox: Yeah, just like I read it. Has the book been translated into English?
Nina Porzucki: I was curious about the pronoun translation too. It hasn’t been published in English but Marie had it translated. She sent me a copy. Here’s a bit. Listen closely for the pronouns:
“It’s not much of a promise, it sounds a bit iffy but Kivi calms down, ze’s asleep in a jiffy, dreaming of dachshunds with long flapping ears and fur oh so soft, it’ll bring you to tears. All through the night Kivi sleeps like a log, dreaming of hir future sausage dog.”
Patrick Cox: Oh interesting, ze and hir.
Nina Porzucki: Yep.
Patrick Cox: So is there actually anything in the story about Kivi identifying as gender non-binary or trans or anything really about gender?
Nina Porzucki: No. It’s just about a kid dreaming of a dog. And Kivi happens to be referred to as hen. But according to Professor Karin Milles, who you just heard reading me her copy of the book, the book sparked such a big debate because it was a book for children.
Karin Milles: I think the children thing was really a big issue because people were sort of concerned that children would no know their gender and would be sort of confused and unhappy for the rest of their lives and everything so that was a big part of it. And also a big part of it was that was sort of a mainstream proposal that everybody should use it not just some subgroups so people felt that you should not be telling me what pronouns I will use. That was sort of part of the anger towards this pronoun.
Nina Porzucki: It’s important to note that the pronoun hen according to Milles really has two definitions in Swedish: One, it’s used when you don’t know the gender of a person you are talking about. For example, “Molly went to the doctor and hen said Molly had a cold.” So, instead of using the default he or the awkward phrase he or she for the doctor, you can insert hen.
Patrick Cox: We have the same issue in English.
Nina Porzucki: Yes. And the second way hen is used is as a way of identifying yourself, used by some non-binary and trans folks.
Patrick: Sort of how some people might use they or ze. So what are the origins of hen?
Nina Porzucki: There are many theories but…
Karin Milles: The best hypothesis is that it’s a loanword from Finnish. It’s a direct loanword because in Finnish which is a country next to us they have this pronoun hen which is gender neutral singular third person pronoun.
Patrick Cox: Wait a second, Finnish is not related to Swedish.
Nina Porzucki: Very true. Finnish has nothing to do with Swedish, they’re not related languages. But what Finnish does have is a gender neutral pronoun: hän.
Patrick Cox: Oh right, That sounds close.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, it’s spelled a bit differently. The Finnish word is H-A-with two dots over it -N. According to Milles the word entered Swedish in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Karin Milles: It was a Swedish professor who had a knowledge of Finnish, and he started discussing it among his students and he also wrote articles about it so in the 50s and the 60s is the first sort of written findings of it.
Nina Porzucki: Traditionally he or han is used in Swedish as the default generic pronoun.
Karin Milles: And in the 50s and the 60s this was becoming more and more problematic because, you know, there are women too that want to be included. and lots of people thought that it was sort of clumsy to use the phrase he or she all the time. So that’s why he came up with the idea oh he was discussing the idea.
Nina Porzucki: But the idea never went anywhere.
Karin Milles: Until late 90s and the beginning of the new millennium where you had a new usage that was being sort of started to spread and it was the LGBT community that started to use it to refer to real people people that sort of didn’t feel comfortable being called he or she. Hen is a good word that could be you know some sort of trans identity nonbinary identity. So they started using it or promoting it and discussing it. And also radical feminists started to use it and they used it as a sort of an alternative to always having to gender people.
Nina Porzucki:: Fast forward to 2007.
Anne Uhrgård: Hi Okay. Start? Nina: Sure. Hi. My name is Anne Uhrgård.
Nina Porzucki: Anne Uhrgård became the poster child for hen on the cover of a popular Swedish magazine.
Anne Uhrgård: That period of time I was quite androgynous and kinda difficult to know. Am I he or am I or she? Who should I be? Who do people expect me to be? What do I really feel about myself. I was kind of trying to find myself little bit.
Nina Porzucki: So hen just made sense. Anne, by the way, is how I picture the typical Swede: tall and blonde. On the magazine cover Anne wears a striped button down shirt, chin-length hair, bangs, and a shy smile.
Anne Uhrgård: It’s always kind of rewarding to see yourself on a poster in any newspaper shop. But it’s I’m in a way I can think I’m kind of modest. I’ve found that OK. It’s nice, both for myself. Explain who am I. But also to others. Who are we. We as trans persons.
Nina Porzucki: The magazine cover prompted conversations about the word among Swedes outside of LGBT and Radical Feminist circles: Swedes in the mainstream. There were critics of course.
Anne Uhrgård: At that time ten years ago was actually there were people who wrote in to the newspapers and they said that well the silly word it means chicken in English and we can’t use it. It’s just ridiculous.
Nina Porzucki: But it was still a word seen on the fringes, used by only certain groups. Until 2012, when Kivi & Monsterdog put it in an ordinary kids book. Interestingly the debate surrounding hen mirrors a larger conversation that was and is still happening in Sweden.
Interviewer: Sweden has what it overtly calls a feminist foreign policy.
Karin Olofsdotter: We do. We actually have the the first feministic government which then has a feminist foreign policy…
Nina Porzucki: That’s Karin Olofsdotter, the Swedish Ambassador to the US.
Patrick Cox: A feminist government? A feministic government. What is that?
Nina Porzucki: Well, Sweden is at the forefront of a lot things: Feminist foreign policy, feminist government, feminist urban planning, even feminist snow plowing. There’s a lot of thinking right now about gender equality in Sweden.
Patrick Cox: Okay, how do you do feminist snow plowing?
Nina Porzucki: Well, okay so in a suburb of Stockholm they enacted feminist snow plowing. And it’s all about where the spaces that women and children are using more frequently. Are they being plowed equally. So for example, they tried by just plowing sidewalks and parks before they plowed main roads. It actually turned into a giant mess and there was a lot of criticism about this.
Patrick Cox: I would imagine so because if you are plowing neighborhoods and paths to school and calling that feminist, then you are assuming that the mother takes the child to school every day rather than the father, which doesn’t seem to be very feminist thinking.
Nina Porzucki: There’s that and there’s also that the roads are a giant mess — and women drive too. And the city grinds to a halt. But the idea that thinking more purposely about how cities are laid out affects both men and women. And it there’s parity. So Sweden is at the forefront of gender revolution. I mean there’s a minister of gender equality.
Patrick Cox: They’re talking about it?
Nina Porzucki: No, no, they have a minister of gender equality, for a while now. And language plays into all that as well.
Karen Milles: Hen has just been a tool creating a lot of debate and media space. So it’s been a part of that bigger discussion
Mikael Parkvall: The positions are very predictable if you know a person’s political stance.
Nina Porzucki: This is linguist Mikael Parkvall. He says, the arguments for and against hen during the Kivi debates broke down into two basic camps.
Mikael Parkvall: So if you’re to the left you’d think that less let gender marking in the language is going to automatically promote gender equality in society. So language is magic. And by reforming language we can automatically Reform Society. And if you are to the right politically of course say well if he and she were good enough for my grandfather, my grandparents, why shouldn’t they be good enough for me? We’ve always done it this way and also we mustn’t forget that language is magic. If we use less gender marking in language it will affect society and it will make all these wonderful gender roles that we’ve spent so many generations developing — it’ll make them crumble. And we don’t want that do we?
Patrick Cox: Language is magic!
Nina Porzucki: It’s magical.
Patrick Cox: Unicorns!
Nina Porzucki: Rainbows!
Mikael Parkvall: So those were basically the two irreconcilable positions of predictable positions but both were the same underlying assumption that language equals magic equals society and language controls our minds and so on which as you might expect from my choice of words here I am a bit skeptical about.
Patrick Cox: Oh yes, the linguists are skeptical about that usually, that language determines who we perceive the world.
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, Parkvall thinks these arguments for and against hen are pretty bunk. He wrote an article refuting the claim that gender neutral pronouns would do anything to change gender norms in Sweden.
Mikael Parkvall: I checked the gender equality in various countries because that has been quantified by well by the UN and various organizations. And if you correlate that with the languages people speak whether their language is gendered or non-gendered. As and this is something people tend to forget that is the normal state of affairs. Two thirds of the worlds languages don’t make a difference between he and she like like Finnish like well like Mandarin …
Patrick Cox: Right, yes and he’s talking about spoken language here. Because written Mandarin does have distinctive male and female characters.
Nina Porzucki: Yes. But he found that…
Mikael Parkvall: There’s absolutely no correlation between the pronoun system and the equality in the country in question. I mean, Turkish has a gender neutral pronoun system and there is absolutely no survey that would in would indicate that that Turkey is more equal in terms of gender than Sweden.
Nina Porzucki: So it goes against all your gut feelings that if you speak more equitably, you’ll think more equitably. That’s not necessarily true.
Patrick Cox: Yeah, it’s clear that in somewhere like in Turkey, they’re not debating it, like that’s the way it is in the Turkish language and so everyone just accepts it. But in Swedish if they’re making this switch, they’re not adopting a new word — and maybe that in and of itself is going to change anything — but the very fact that they are adopting a word means that they’re also taking on a whole debate, saying, “Is equality something we should strive for?” Beyond language — it’s got nothing to do with language. It’s just that trying to make a change in language brings up the debate.
Nina Porzucki: Right, so trying to actively think about language in that way and change it and talk about it in the culture may result in more gender equality across the board. But just because your language innately has gender does not mean that your culture is more equitable.
Patrick Cox: Okay, so what’s happened in Sweden in these few years since this debate has been raging?
Nina: More on that after a quick break.
Patrick Cox: Hello, I’m here very quickly so thank you for listening to Subtitle. I’m glad you like it enough to listen through this far.
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Nina Porzucki: In the six years since the Kivi & Monsterdog debate, hen has come a pretty long way. It is entered the dictionary for one thing. That happened in 2015. But I was curious about what the man or woman on the street…
Patrick Cox: Hen on the street…
Nina Porzucki: Hen on the street, like: Is this word actually being used. So on a freezing afternoon this February…
Nina in Stockholm: Oh my god it’s so cold….
Nina Porzucki: I spoke with a few folks in a square in Stockholm.
Man#1: Hen? What does it mean?
Nina: Have you heard it before?
Man #1: No, this is the first time.
Man #2: I think definitely younger people are more up to date with how to use the word.
Woman #1: From the beginning I thought it was like the animal, hen, and I didn’t like it but now I’m used to it and now I say it myself.
Woman #2: Hmmm…I think it was a little weird at first but then I got used to it.
Nina: Do you think 10 years from now it’s going to be a part of the language?
Man #3: Yeah, I think it’s like that now. Nobody is lifting an eyebrow if you use hen instead of he or she.
Nina Porzucki: Linguist Mikael Parkvall isn’t surprised.
Mikael Parkvall: The main thing I would say that has happened is that it has become more common and pretty much automatically as something becomes more frequent it’s more or less by definition becomes less of a statement less less extreme. So it becomes something for for the entire family something that everyone can enjoy. And that applies to whatever piece of clothing or hairstyle or music musical genre or whatever. And also to words. Of course the more people use it the less extreme it is perceived.
Nina Porzucki: But what does impress him is the fact that hen has caught on in such a short period of time — remember after the debate in 2012 it was just three years before the pronoun had entered the dictionary.
Mikael Parkvall: So that’s impressive. Pronouns — in linguists jargon, they belong to closed to lexical classes so any language borrows or generates new nouns or new adjectives and new verbs all the time. But pronouns prepositions and those kinds of lexical categories they don’t accept new members very easily.
Patrick Cox: They don’t accept new members very easily! So, why does he think this pronoun caught on?
Nina Porzucki: Parkvall theorizes that what makes hen a sticky word is that it fills an actual language gap.
Mikael Parkvall: Because I think most people who speak on rights a gendered language I think we’ve all encountered that problem haven’t we? How should I put this? He/she, he and/or she or whatever.
Nina Porzucki: And his proof is another new pronoun that’s been bubbling up lately in Sweden. You could almost call it a follow-up pronoun to “hen.” And that is a new generic pronoun: en.
Patrick Cox: So, like hen without the h?
Nina Porzucki: That’s just incidental.
Patrick Cox: What is a generic pronoun?
Nina Porzucki: Yeah, in English, I guess the closest word might be you or one as in, “You should know better than going there.” Or, “One should be aware that in the spring, it rains a lot.” One and you mean people in general.
Patrick Cox: Ah. I bet I know the word that this is replacing because Danish and German have it too. And that is man.
Nina Porzucki: Exactly.
Mikael Parkvall: The traditional generic pronoun in Swedish is man and it is homophonous with man meaning man, adult male. And I would say as a linguist that these are two different words that happened to sound the same. It is historically derived from the word, man. Yes it is. But I would argue that they function differently. So one man is clearly a noun meaning adult male. The other man sounds the same has the same historical roots but he’s clearly a pronoun and it means people in general. They are spelt identically. You can almost guess the rest of the story. Since they sound the same, certain people dislike the pronoun man because it conveys a male-centered view of the world.
Patrick Cox: Yeah, I can see why people would get hung up on this. It’s all very well having a linguist explain to you that the two words are not the same as each other, but look and sound the same!
Mikael Parkvall: So instead they use en.
Nina Porzucki: Which translates to one in English.
Mikael Parkvall: So instead of, “Man should not do this,” they say, “One should not do this.”
Nina Porzucki: This pronoun en is actually used in some Swedish dialects. It’s not a totally made up word.
Mikael Parkvall: Only the people who use it in this way now are not elderly dialect speakers who have never left their home parish. But 24 year-olds, educated gender-conscious city dwellers.
Nina Porzucki: But en has not caught on like hen. And Parkvall thinks that the reason it hasn’t caught on is the same reason that hen has been able to insert itself into the Swedish language and stick.
Mikael Parkvall: Hen can be a political marker but it can also be practical. Whereas this generic en pronoun, it doesn’t do anything that we couldn’t do yesterday.
Patrick Cox: Oh right, it’s just replacing one word for another rather than putting a word in kind of a whole.
Nina Porzucki: It’s theoretical and not actually filling that language gap. So hen is this sort of crossover of two things where there’s an idea and a movement behind it, but it’s also a really useful word.
Patrick Cox: How does the news media treating all of this?
Nina Porzucki: Today, you’ll see the word in newspapers and magazines, not all newspapers and magazines. Interestingly, it got into the dictionary. The Swedish Academy put it into the glossary of accepted Swedish words. But the Swedish Language Council who is the unofficial arbiter of what is and what is not Swedish have not recognized the word. They have not not recognized the word but they are recommending people use the word, it, den.
Patrick Cox: Not not recognized the word, that’s really good. What about the government. When they puts out say, a report on the economy or something like this, would they ever thrown in a hen if somebody, say an economist, wanted to be referred to that way?
Nina Porzucki: It’s kind of all over the place. So in 2013, the minister for gender equality used the word on the parliament floor for the first time, kind of in official sense. It caused quite a stir as you can imagine. So parliament itself has made an official announcement that hen should not be used in government documents. However, MPs are free to use it in debates on the floor and they are also free to use it in written motions. So it’s like cutting — what’s the expression, splitting hairs. It’s like splitting hairs. And certain municipalities are using it in official documents, but it’s kind of all a mish-mash.
Patrick Cox: But it does sound like it’s taking hold.
Nina Porzucki: Oh, certainly.
Patrick Cox: By the way, how about that poster child for hen, Anna? How does Anna feel about this transformation since they were on the cover of that magazine so long ago, a decade ago?
Nina Porzucki: Well, it’s kind of interesting. So Anne was actually re-interviewed, they did a follow-up ten years later. And Anna uses a different pronoun these days.
Anne Uhrgård: Almost everybody calls me she because I’m living as a woman. But it’s actually used by some people at work for example. I don’t think that they really know or are aware that I was kind of a model for the word but they actually use it when writing instructions and so on.
Nina Porzucki: What is that like for you?
Anne Uhrgård: Yeah, it feels fine. Yeah it worked. That’s good.
Patrick Cox: Thanks to Nina Porzucki who reported this. Also to Nathalie Rothschild, Tina Tobey and Alyson Reed. And to The World radio program with Marco Werman, with a new edition on your local public radio station or in your podcast app every week day.
Subtitle is a member of Hub and Spoke audio collective, I want to recommend another Hub and Spoke podcast. It’s called The Constant, and it’s about our fraught relationship with the past. We think we’re always learning from the past, improving ourselves, but seriously do we learn anything? A good place to start would be with a couple of recent episodes, one called, It’s all a lie, and the other, Don’t Know Much about History. They take us back to the year 1729 and a guy who declared that all of history was faked. Good to know these types of people have been around for a while. The Constant with host Mark Chrisler.
Thank you, and see you next time.