It’s time the English language had a gender-neutral singular pronoun

Sweden is one of the leading countries when it comes to gender egalitarianism and it’s taken another step in the right direction this week by announcing the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun in the new edition of the nation’s official dictionary.

“Hen” will join “han” (he) and “hon” (she) to provide Swedish speakers with a gender-neutral singular pronoun which can be used in a variety of situations: if the gender identity of the person is unknown, if the gender identity is to remain undisclosed, when gender identity is irrelevant or when the person is transgender.

“Hen” has actually been used in Sweden since the 1960s but has become more widely used only in the last few years, when the country’s small transgender community adopted it and early-childhood educators began using it to break down gender barriers among children. “Hen” can now be found in official texts, court rulings, media texts and books.

The word’s official endorsement by the Swedish Academy, the independent cultural institution that decides which words will be included in each new edition of the country’s official dictionary, shows once again what a utilitarian, progressive nation Sweden is.

The country currently ranks fourth on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report behind Iceland, FInland and Norway. (Hang your head in shame, United Kingdom — you’re trailing way behind at 26th place.)

More: My child came out as transgender: Now what?

Surely it’s time for other countries to follow Sweden’s lead and introduce a gender-neutral singular pronoun? Time to step out of our binary comfort zone and deal with the fact that many, many people define themselves as something other than man or woman; he or she; him or her. As it stands the English language does not support those who identify as gender-nonbinary. We need something to cover everything that falls between “he” and “she” and it needn’t be a complicated process. (“They” just won’t do; grammatical purists out there will be quick to point out that pronouns should match both gender and number.) 

Interestingly this isn’t a modern-day dilemma. Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, reveals that over the last 150 years there have been over 100 attempts to create a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Going under various guises over the years, including “hermaphrodite pronoun”, “bipersonal pronoun” and “unisex pronoun,” rejected suggestions include e, ey, hu, jee and thon.

It’s exciting to remind ourselves how flexible our language can be. Working towards creating a transfriendly society it’s important that our language is a part of that process.

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