Pronoun Trouble

They're butchering the Swedish language with a hen! And it isn't the Swedish chef who's doing it!
They're butchering the Swedish language with a hen! And it isn't the Swedish chef who's doing it! (photo: Register Files)

Even Slate Magazine seems skeptical of a recent move in Sweden to introduce a genderless personal pronoun into the Swedish language:


Earlier this month, the movement for gender neutrality reached a milestone: Just days after International Women's Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia.

The entry defines hen as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]."

The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites.

It was sparked by the publication of Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for "hen's" birthday.

The male author, Jesper Lundqvist, introduces several gender-neutral words in the book. For instance the words mammor and pappor (moms and dads) are replaced with mappor and pammor.

Slate's skepticism emerges in a subsequent passage noting the Orwellian attempt to force children to behave against their nature:

Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are also subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children's interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers.

One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys "gender-coded" them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys.

Another preschool removed "free playtime" from its schedule because, as a pedagogue at the school put it, when children play freely "stereotypical gender patterns are born and cemented. In free play there is hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed to bullying."

And so every detail of children's interactions gets micromanaged by concerned adults, who end up problematizing minute aspects of children's lives, from how they form friendships to what games they play and what songs they sing.

What to make of all this?


Sunday Sympathy

I have to sympathize with the Swedes who are opposed to this ideology-based linguistic bullying.

Here in the U.S. a form of it appears in most Catholic parishes, where the faithful are subjected to emasculated hymns that have been systematically stripped of any reference to males or masculine pronouns.

This produces inferior, inelegant, bowdlerized versions of classic hymns.

The emasculators do not even blush at stripping hymns based on scriptural texts of male references.

(I'm looking at you, Oregon Catholic Press!)

I'm sorry, but Jesus did not say:

No one can come to me unless the Father beckons.

And I will raise you up on the last day.

What he said was:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him [auton],

and I will raise him [auton] on the last day.

Those pronouns are unmistakably masculine in Greek.

Even the New American Bible (just quoted) gets this right!


Orwellian Bullying

Calling this kind of gender-stripping Orwellian is not too strong.

The ideology behind it may be different, but it involves the same type of ideological manipulation of language that George Orwell wrote about in his classic book, 1984, in which Big Brother encourages the denial of reality through doublethink by sending certain words down the memory hole so that his subjects will begin thinking in an ideologically re-engineered English known as Newspeak and thus won't be able to think certain thoughts and thoughtcrime will be impossible.

This is precisely what the gender bullies--both in English and Swedish--are trying to do.

Only the ideology is different.

But there are major problems . . .


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Is Bogus

The first problem is that the idea that changing a language will change the way people think, and thus the way they behave, is fraught with problems.

This idea--known in linguistic circles as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis--has been basically discredited.

While language may have some influence on thought, it is very limited.

The human mind is too good at working its way around linguistic limitations, and it simply is not possible to do the kind of social engineering envisioned by Big Brother--or his feminist counterparts in the real world.

In fact, there are languages that don't have gendered pronouns, but this doesn't result in an elimination of gender differences or gender roles among the people who speak these languages.

One such language is Persian. But is Iran a sex-blind society where the roles of men and women are indistinguishable?


Language Is Resistant to Manipulation

A second problem is that language is resistant to artificial manipulation.

If a particular new word strikes people as actually useful (e.g., "Internet," "blog") then it can catch on quickly--by popular demand.

But it is hard to establish a new usage unless it's actually useful.

The vast majority of proposed new words and usages do not catch on.

They may be trendy for a time, but they don't enter the language's long-term vocabulary.

Anybody remember the verb "to Rambo" that had a brief popularity after the Silvester Stallone film came out?

The core vocabulary of a language--the words that people use most frequently, including pronouns--is particularly resistant to change.

It's a safe bet, therefore, that hen is unlikely to catch on in Swedish.

Just like the genderless pronouns proposed for English.

That's not to say that a gender-revised word can't catch on. We have seen that happen in English.

People now often say "firefighter" instead of "fireman," but these are nouns, and it is far easier to introduce a new noun than a new pronoun.

What do you think?


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