This article appeared in De Morgen newspaper on Saturday, 10 August 2019. Translated from the Dutch by John Linnegar for the May 2020 issue of PEGboard.
Gender-neutral language makes people think differently about the sexes, it would appear from scientific research into a reform of the law regarding the matter in Sweden. A prerequisite: language must follow the development of society and not be prescriptive.
The Swedes do not need to choose between han (he) or hon (she) any longer; they are now able to fall back on hen, the gender-neutral pronoun that was given legal status in 2015.
But does such a reform of the language help at all? Yes, it does, two American scientists conclude. That hen has made Swedes less masculine, more feminine and more tolerant towards sexual minorities is beyond dispute, they write in the journal PNAS. But that can have all kinds of consequence.
Just consider, for example, the fact that the introduction of the gender-neutral pronoun has been debated for quite a number of years. That political debate opened the eyes of many Swedes to the inequality of the sexes in their language and in their thinking. A Sweden that espouses more sexual equality could very well be a social development for which language is an expression, not a cause.
In 2015, the pronoun ‘hen’, which is neither male nor female, was imported into the language.
To filter out the effect of language on itself, the researchers asked thousands of Swedes to participate in a series of online tests. They had, for example, to give a name to a drawn figure that could equally have been either male or female, or anything in between. They had to invent the names of the main character in a story. And, in the same test, they were asked questions about women in politics and about sexual equality in Swedish society.
Prior to the test, the one group was trained to use male pronouns, a second group female pronouns, and a third group to use gender-neutral pronouns. That seems to have had an effect: not only on the names chosen for the main character in the story but also on the participants’ opinions about politics and society.
It is possible that the participants could have given socially desirable answers. For this reason, the researchers monitored the speed with which words were suggested: if you do not use words spontaneously, but come up with them because you have to, your delivery speed will be slower. This was not the case in this research, however.
Conclusion: word choice can change a society.