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Nils Dverstorp

Swedish word "hen" – why were we so provoked?

Published: 30 March 2015

It is three years since the gender-neutral word hen (they/them) under huge uproar was introduced in Swedish. The reason so many were upset over the word can be found in the grammar, says Nils Dverstorp, Senior Lecturer in Swedish and Education at Luleå University of Technology.

The word hen – a pronoun that can be used when you do not know or do not want to specify the gender of someone in Swedish. It appears the first time in writing in 1966, but only in 2012 the hen-debate really started after the book Kivi and monster dog was released. The protagonist Kivi is neither said to be a girl or a boy.

– A word that fills a gap in the Swedish language ought to be welcome, but such was not the case, says Nils Dverstorp.

Unaware of explanation

Many of those who were negative to hen meant that they were forced to use a word and the hen in the worst case would erase all gender boundaries.

But when Nils Dverstorp looks at the hen-debate in the rearview mirror, he has a simpler explanation. The resistance is based in the grammar. In the Swedish language there are open and closed word classes. In the open classes, such as nouns, constantly new words are added without anyone raising an eyebrow.

– But pronoun is a closed word class. If we add something there, then it will be chaos, he says.

The last time something changed in the closed word class pronouns was in the 1600s.

– In the closed word classes new words are simply not welcome and therefore people reacts very strongly without really knowing why.


More grammar from day

Nils Dverstorps lecture is part of the grammar days recently been held at Luleå University of Technology. Here you will find presentations from the other speakers during the day.