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Front Psychol. 2015 Jul 1;6:893. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00893. eCollection 2015.

Introducing a gender-neutral pronoun in a natural gender language: the influence of time on attitudes and behavior.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University Stockholm, Sweden.
2
Department of Psychology, Gothenburg University Gothenburg, Sweden.
3
Department of Psychology, Lund University Lund, Sweden.

Abstract

The implementation of gender fair language is often associated with negative reactions and hostile attacks on people who propose a change. This was also the case in Sweden in 2012 when a third gender-neutral pronoun hen was proposed as an addition to the already existing Swedish pronouns for she (hon) and he (han). The pronoun hen can be used both generically, when gender is unknown or irrelevant, and as a transgender pronoun for people who categorize themselves outside the gender dichotomy. In this article we review the process from 2012 to 2015. No other language has so far added a third gender-neutral pronoun, existing parallel with two gendered pronouns, that actually have reached the broader population of language users. This makes the situation in Sweden unique. We present data on attitudes toward hen during the past 4 years and analyze how time is associated with the attitudes in the process of introducing hen to the Swedish language. In 2012 the majority of the Swedish population was negative to the word, but already in 2014 there was a significant shift to more positive attitudes. Time was one of the strongest predictors for attitudes also when other relevant factors were controlled for. The actual use of the word also increased, although to a lesser extent than the attitudes shifted. We conclude that new words challenging the binary gender system evoke hostile and negative reactions, but also that attitudes can normalize rather quickly. We see this finding very positive and hope it could motivate language amendments and initiatives for gender-fair language, although the first responses may be negative.

KEYWORDS:

attitude change; gender; gender-fair language; gender-neutral pronouns; hen

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