As a linguist, I often fail to match my non-linguist friends in how-cool-is-my-degree anecdotes: Japanese word order alternations just don’t have the same shock effect as a budding doctor declaring how formaldehyde makes them hungry during dissections, and Middle English sound changes don’t make you quite as hip as the classicist divulging in ancient Bacchanalia. But a few weeks back, I enjoyed a rare moment of subject coolness when I declared (to the hip classicist, as it happens) that – brace for impact – Finnish only has one word, hän, for both he and she. Nor is it the only one of its kind.

Classicists just wanna have fun. Peter Paul Rubens: Bacchanalia.
Classicists just wanna have fun. Peter Paul Rubens: Bacchanalia.

For a moment, I felt that the ensuing silence, followed by somewhat excessive OMG-nowaying (at which point I was seriously considering offering the poor classicist a paper bag to prevent hyperventilation) was perhaps veering into the overreacting side of things. However, a gender-neutral third-person pronoun has glimmered as the Holy Grail of linguistic equality in the minds of generations of activists and regularly crops up in newspaper headlines – not an insignificant subject to get excited about. English, for instance, has seen suggestions ranging from hu and peh to xe, jee and many more, as alternatives for unifying he and she.

Why bother about such minuscule issues? Haven’t English-speakers been quite content with the distinction since, well, English began? Part of the answer is stylistic: everyone knows the awkwardness of conscientiously typing he/she whenever reference is not specified, turning the prose of budding Shakespeares into a satire of political correctness, or the cumbersome singular they shot down by prescriptivists. The other part, as any self-respecting feminist in the footsteps of Beauvoir will point out, is that language is a tool of, mostly patriarchal, power – more often than not, masculine terms carry the connotations of the standard and the positive. The list is continued by the question of how to refer to those who do not identify themselves in the gender binary, and cases where the use of he has turned androgynous entities into gendered beings (never imagined the Christian God as a bearded fellow on the rim of a cloud?).

It may all seem like a never-ending debate conducted from ivory towers but in 2012, Sweden saw gender-egalitarian fuel thrown into its pronominal flames as the first children’s book with hen, the proposed gender-neutral equivalent for feminine hon and masculine han, was published. In Kivi och Monsterhund, the protagonist Kivi has no specified gender and it is left to the reader to choose how they see, uhm, them. However, in the wonderland of equality where even the main airport features unisex toilets and where hen has finally achieved dictionary-status this year, the opposition has raised a surprisingly animated and even imaginative counter-attack, not least because of underlying seeds of misunderstanding: it is only the extremists who want to see the gender distinction fully erased from pronouns whereas the majority regard hen as an opportunity to avoid the awkwardness of referring problems. Sadly enough, it is the extremist view that has gained the most eager attention.

Hon? Han? Whatever. ClipArtBest.

Some say hen confuses language use, and the major newspaper Dagens Nyheter banned its use for the same reason; others claim it confuses not only language but also their children’s gender identity. Those inclined to think in terms of conspiracy theories see it all as one big feminist plot to erase gender not only from language but humankind (NOT mankind, please) as well. And as hen has a meaning quite different in English, oh the irony of gender-neutral hens!

However, according to the author, Jesper Lundqvist, Kivi the gender-neutral protagonist is less of a feminist tour de force and more of a creative possibility. No proverbial governments have been taken over: children still assign gender, usually their own, when reciting the tale. And while Lundqvist admits to using increasing numbers of hen in casual speech, those still fearing the loss of their gender may rest assured for Kivi does have gender-specific parents – the good old mother and father.

Yet all is not well in allegedly gender-neutral language paradises, either, where, perhaps surprisingly, the opposite trend is emerging. Look east of Sweden, and Finnish language enthusiasts strike back. Finnish may well have only gender-neutral pronouns, hän for people and se for things as well as people, but there is a yearning, however faint and underground, for something gender-specific. The original translation of Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, was criticized for using the single pronoun in situations where the original English she/he distinction clarifies reference, while the most recent version has been furnished with the additional, made-up hen for feminine reference – likewise the object of unhappy feelings aplenty.

What about greater gender equality propelled by hän? Would the introduction of a gender-specific pronoun not undermine the goals of gender-neutral language enthusiasts? In language, certainly no stylistic issues arise with hän when the referent could be of any, or no, gender, and in society, women were given the right to vote second in the world (which is slightly shadowed by the fact that gender-specific English-speaking New Zealand got there first). However, all these enthusisasts’ arguments reduce to nothing but wishful thinking in face of studies showing that people uniformly manifest predominantly male associations with hän – only girls under school age will see it as female. So much for gender-neutral socialization through a single pronoun.

Gender-neutral pronouns - not so much about votes for women. Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics.
Gender-neutral pronouns – not so much about votes for women. Sony Pictures Classics.

Risking a blow to my subject coolness, I had to inform the classicist of a further anticlimax: what seems to be constantly forgotten in these debates, is that hen and its peer neologisms, whatever their social impact, are very unlikely to gain ground other than as stylistic alternatives for the already existing pronouns. Studies into the history of languages show repeatedly that the basic ingredients of language are the most resistant to change and as such cannot be changed by willpower. Just think about it: can you imagine yourself saying thon or ze instead of he and she without the ridicule carried by so many expressions created to be politically correct?

Deep breaths. English pronouns aren’t going gender-neutral any time soon.