Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On “Hen” and Gendered Language


My friend’s partner from France speaks fluent English with an impressive vocabulary, but you can tell he’s not a native speaker. Here’s an example. My friend had to warn his partner when he was retelling a story that involved his female friend. But the gender of the friend had nothing to do with the story, and by stating the gender, it added a level of unintended nuance that actually detracted from the story. It’s not because he was a sexist that the gender of his friend had to be noted, but rather because there are two versions of the French word for friend: one for male (copain), one for female (copine).

I wondered if native French speakers (or speakers of any language with gendered nouns, like German and Spanish) are affected in other ways by gendered nouns referring to people, and further, would it have made a difference in their subconscious if the table was a female or a male noun.

I started to wonder about all this because research shows that when we use a male pronoun (he/his/him)) when referring to the profession in general, say a doctor, even though the gender doesn’t matter, the readers picture a male doctor. For example, the sentence “A doctor needs to consider his words when speaking to a patient,” it is referring to any doctor, and it’s not relevant if the doctor is female or male, but in English in these types of cases, a male pronoun is used. Some say this practice adds to the stereotype and prejudice we have about women’s place in the medical field at that level.

Many psychology papers and books written by psychologists explicitly say “he or she” instead of defaulting to he, to be more inclusive. Some has resorted to alternating he or she in different chapters or for different nouns. For example, in some paragraph, they refer to a child as “he”, and in the next paragraph if they refer to a storekeeper, they might use “she”. Many have taken the shortcut of using “they” even if the noun they are representing is singular. When Bobby McFerrin sang a song that contained the word God, he explained to the audience before the performance that God transcends gender, and to emphasize the point, he will refer to God in the song as “she”.

Leave it to the Swedes to come up with a new non-gendered pronoun for a person: hen. I don’t know if people will embrace it, or it will be used only in legalese. Will it make a difference in gender equality? If it does, did the language cause the change or is it the already progressive attitude of the Swedes insisting this word be created and used, that will further push gender equality? While only history can reveal answers to some of these questions, I for one, am pleased that this word was created in my life time.

Photo: I haven’t been to Sweden yet, but here’s a city view of Ålesund, Norway. Norway recognizes the importance of gender diversity at the very top of corporations if they are to address women’s career glass ceilings and equity in pay. They wrote into law in 2006 which required 40% female representation on corporate boards.


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This entry was posted on June 24, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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