Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Epicene pronouns, Swedish edition

The NYT has a piece this morning with this headline:
Swedish School’s Big Lesson Begins With Dropping Personal Pronouns
 Here's the opening:
At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.
So, it's not about DROPPING personal pronouns, but rather avoiding gendered language. We've talked about epicene pronouns before (e.g. here), and other linguablogs have too.

Here's my question: Is this the clearest institutional endorsement of the phenomenon? I'm not recalling anything quite like it offhand. You could actually end up with kids using such forms pretty much natively, I suppose.


Lane said...

Hell, I'll attempt a defence of the headline-write: headlinese is often, as in this case, ambiguous.

"Acme to trim expenses by cutting free lunch"

would probalby mean nobody gets free lunch anymore, but

"Acme to trim expenses by cutting workforce"

would mean that certain bits of the workforce, not all of it, were cut.

The NYT headline could be read that *certain* pronouns were dropped ("han" and "hon".) Or, just as likely, you're right, and the writer doesn't know what a personal pronoun is.

Also, like Geoff Pullum, I very much doubt this is going to take, no matter how hard they try. And if it does, it won't eliminate sexism, anymore than the many cultures that have one pronoun for "he" and "she" (Mandarin Chinese, eg) are without sexism.

Lane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, there's a reading that could work, but it feels pretty forced to me.

I'd be stunned if any epicene pronoun like this ever really caught on -- I was trying to be flip in the post.