In Sweden, the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” is popular in queer, radical left, and feminist circles, because it allows you to describe a person without revealing their sex, a thing that they believe should have nothing to do with one's identity. We wrote about it some issues ago in a blurb about the gender-neutral kindergarten, Egalia. Although the term has been around for years, the debate about hen has recently blown up so much in the Swedish media they’ve made a mountain out of a molehill—or “a hen out of a feather,” as we say in Sweden. Oh, the puns!
Although "hen'" has yet to be acknowledged as a bona fide pronoun, with the current media frenzy—a series of articles in daily papers, TV panel discussions, children’s books without a single “him” or “her” in them, and the city guide/nightlife paper Nöjesguiden publishing a whole issue in which all third-person pronouns were replaced with "hen"—it might only be a matter of time before this loaded word becomes legit. It’s already described as: “a suggested gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of her and him” in The Swedish National Encyclopedia.
We asked some Swedes we met on the street how they feel about hen, and about potentially having to hear and read it every day in a not too distant future. (By a lucky coincidence, we also bumped into Jan Guillou, Sweden’s most famous writer after Stieg Larsson and Astrid Lindgren.)
Jan Guillou, 68, author.
VICE: Hello, Jan Guillou! What do you think about the word hen?
Jan: I think it’s silly because it doesn’t change anything. But it can however, confuse texts. In what way is it confusing?
You don’t know if the text is about a him or a her—and that’s the point of pronouns. Maybe it’s OK to use it occasionally in a column as some kind of small demonstration, but it’s an impossible project to adopt it into the Swedish language. In the Swedish Academy’s dictionary, "hen" means "whetstone."
Yeah, and it means the mother of a chicken in English! Exactly. Do you think the word’s new meaning should be included in the Swedish Academy’s dictionary?
No! The Academy has more authority than those feminist activists who want to destroy our language. So you think it’s sabotage?
Yes, it is.
I take it you like to be referred to as a man?
Well, I am a man. And that’s a huge part of your identity?
Yes. And it doesn’t concern or trouble me at all. And I don’t think that my gender has anything to do with equality because that is a political matter.
Elias, 30, entrepreneur.
VICE: Hi, Elias.
Elias: Hello. Would you prefer to be called hen instead of him?
I can’t decide that right now. Is it uncomfortable to be called him?
Yeah. So you find it uncomfortable to reveal that you are a guy when other people talk about you?
Yeah. Actually, I can’t talk about hen, her or him with you. Why not?
It’s uncomfortable. I don’t know. I can’t make a decision about that right now.
Urban Renström, 57, works at a bank.
VICE: Have you ever heard about the word hen?
Urban: Yes. Would you prefer to be referred to as hen instead of him?
Nope. Why not?
I think it’s perfectly fine to be him. I think it’s terrific! So you think that being a man is a part of your identity?
Absolutely! What do you think about people who prefer to be referred to as hen?
I have some difficulties with that. We have different sexes. Why can’t we have different names for them? What’s the problem with that? What is so strange with that? If you want to make unequal things in society equal, I don’t believe you can achieve that only by changing some words. For example, even if you called cleaners "household technicians," they’d still be doing the exact same job. I don’t believe that words change anything.
Anette Hagelin, 26, fashion student.
VICE: Hey you. Have you ever heard the word hen?
Anette: Yes. I feel positive about it! So you would like to be called hen rather than her?
I’m a her. I don’t know if I’d prefer to be called hen. I don’t think I would care. It would probably be strange to be called hen, because I have never been called that before. I don’t really get why hen has become such a big deal. However, I think we might need a word that doesn’t focus on someone’s sex. Why?
There are gender roles in society that we need to go against. Hen could be useful in books and such, as it doesn’t matter what sex someone is. So you wouldn’t mind it if I called your mother hen?
No, not really.
Cecilia Hedenblad, 76, retired.
VICE: Have you heard about the word hen?
Cecilia: Yes. What do you think about it?
I think it’s silly. There’s a chairman for RFSL [The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights] who has been referred to as hen for about seven years. Hen thinks it’s annoying to be referred to as anything other than hen.
To me that’s incomprehensible.
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