Linguistic social engineering?

There are a few sure methods to get people into arguments. Gender equality works well. Correct language is even more potent. Add children to the mix, and everybody has an opinion. This spring the big debate in Sweden has been about “hen”, a new pronoun intended to mean “he or she”. Introduced broadly (?) in a children’s book, it has led to a widespread debate about gender neutrality, the power over language and (of course) whether those politically correct Swedes have gone too far.

First, a quick rundown of the grammatical issue. Swedish has four grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and two non-gendered ones. Nouns belong to these four classes, and they influence endings and pronouns. Figuring out which of the non-gendered ones to use is a major headache for non-natives (and natives). However, the grammatical genders are not the same thing as the semantic genders – the fact that clocks are feminine doesn’t mean they are regarded as particularly female. Just the ordinary linguistic messiness. In any case, there are four pronouns: “han” (he), “hon” (she), “den” (it) and “det” (it). The proposal is to introduce an extra pronoun “hen” meaning “he or she” – the speaker is agnostic or does not reveal the semantic gender of who they are talking about. And no, it has nothing to do with fowl.

Most English speakers have run into similar debates about gender neutral pronouns. They range from entirely new neologisms – em, thon, yo, zim, you name it – to the singular they (my personal favourite). In many ways the hen debate is nothing new, except that Sweden is small enough that everybody gets involved.

The real issue is of course whether this is anything relevant. Is equality improved by adding a word to the language (and encouraging people to use it), and if so, should we be doing it?

These days few, if any, believe in the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that our thoughts  and hence worldview are shaped by our language. But milder forms might seem more plausible. Words have associations, concepts that are easy to express will be used more often than harder to express concepts. Using the word “he” as a generic pronoun might subliminally make us a bit more likely to regard the male as the default. Adding a new way of expressing gender neutrality might be helpful in this sense, but critics of the hen proposal hear a bit of newspeak in the proposal – sure, it is just suggested as an option right now, but how long until politically correct, overly sensitive institutions begin to demand its use?

Other critics seem to be motivated by a fear of dissolving gender boundaries altogether. While few will come out and state it openly, there is likely a deep unease in some people about the brave new world of optional gender identities – for example, some politicians have defended mandatory sterilisation of transexuals on the ground that pregnant males would be a new gender. What if hen makes all our children into polymorphic hermaphrodites?

These fears are likely overblown. The evidence that having gender neutral pronouns actually help equality is weak. Many languages like Farsi and Finnish have them – and at least Iran is not known for its high degree of gender equality. And the Finns are hardly known for being androgynous. We also have plenty of whitewashing and newspeak already – witness the explosion of grandiose job titles – but they merely serve to obscure, they very rarely seem to affect real social status (again, consider the job titles).

But sometimes words and social importance do change. In the late 60’s there was a deliberate rebellion against the use of the honorific “Ni” (similar to the german “Sie”) in favor of the more egalitarian “du” (same as in German). This “you-reform” was extremely successful: practically nobody uses Ni anymore. The question is whether this made Sweden more egalitarian or whether it was made possible because it was already egalitarian.

Another example is the word “bög” for male homosexual. Originally strongly pejorative it was intentionally reclaimed by the gay rights movement, and is today more or less neutral. Similarly the immigrant community is deliberately taking over the insult “blatte” for themselves. They might not have succeeded completely yet (the situation might be similar to how American blacks can call themselves “nigga” but it would be  faux pas for outsiders to call them that), but it is well on its way. Unfortunately xeonophobes are always inventive. Well-meaning people also sometimes accidentally help them: the word “neger” was a relatively neutral term in Swedish for black people until recent decades, but increasing cultural contact with the US led to a confusion with the strongly pejorative “nigger” and over-reactions from teachers and other well-meaning people against the use. Besides censorship of old books the helpful efforts of course taught kids that neger was a very bad word, and hence it became pejorative (to the degree that the icecream Nogger, named after its nougat content, was attacked as being racist by a anti-racism quango).

Languages are alive and changing, just like the culture they reflect. It is unlikely that a deliberate change of pronouns is going to change how people think about gender – rather, it might become accepted if the culture in general is OK with less gender-fixated ways of expressing things. Small groups can push through changes for good and ill, but they seem successful mainly when it is a niche word somebody can “own” well rather than a core part of grammatics. People are free to speak and write however they want, and others are equally free to understand or misunderstand them as they want.

If language actually could change society we might have an ethical issue. Changing somebody’s gender identity is a pretty profound change, and we would rightly argue that doing it on unwilling people might be a serious matter. This might be true for changing people’s views too, if there was no effective way to avoid the subconscious nudges. Freedom of thought would be impaired if newspeak actually worked well. Ironically, this might mean that we would have to both try to control individual initiatives in changing language (to prevent small groups from imposing their vision) and put language under democratic control. It would likely be a world where linguistic innovation would be tightly controlled and language – and hence society – would be locked into institutional frameworks. It is a good thing language is weak enough to be allowed to be creative.

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2 Responses to Linguistic social engineering?

  • Julia Wise says:

    Danish has already done this. I understand they used to have three (maybe more?) genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Masculine and feminine were combined into “animate”, leaving them with two grammatical genders, neither of which are actually gendered anymore, but vaguely refer to living vs. nonliving things. I don’t know when this change happened or how long it took.
    It usually take generations to change speech. We took a long time to stop using “thee,” and Quakers continued using it for political reasons for centuries after most English speakers had stopped.

  • De Pietro says:

    Thanks for the interesting article! Concerning your last paragraph, perhaps it would be interesting to give a look at how the Icelandic government controls their use of language. Their linguistic purism is well known and it seems to work well. But yes: they are an island, and have half of Oslo’s population (perhaps Stockholm’s too), so it may be easier for them.

    And about the statement: “It usually take generations to change speech”. It depends on the context. Two examples: in some cases, it is possible to identify in which century a Roman prose was written, by way of an analysis of vocabulary and word order.

    Another more recent and dramatic change: being half-Brazilian, I’ve witnessed the change of the official form of addressing Americans in the country. Five years ago we used for that something equivalent to “US-Citizen”, since we also considered ourselves Americans. Now that I’m back to the country I’ve notice they started using “American”, even in official documents. This is relevant because it promoted a change of mentality and of our image of ourselves, as a country. So, yes, I do believe that changing language may lead to change of thought.

    Of course, examples of language control are multiplied several times if we do not restrict ourselves to democratic governments.


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