Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture

For a question with so much riding on it—does using politically correct language actually make a person less of a jerk?—the test was deceptively simple.

Here’s what you do: Show people a sketch of a cartoon person—circle-for-head, ovals for arms and body—with a dotted line linking it to an equally cartoony thing, a balloon-animal dog. Over the person’s head loom two thought bubbles, a round one containing three question marks and a jagged one with three exclamation points. That’s it. And the test is, describe what’s happening.

Importantly, the people being tested, upwards of 2,000 of them, were all native speakers of Swedish, an old language that has learned a new trick. Like English, Swedish used two pronouns to indicate the gender of a person, hon (she) and han (he). But in 2012, a new word dropped into Swedish discourse: hen, a non-gendered pronoun that could replace either or both.


p class=”paywall”>So this was the real test. Would native-speaker Swedes, seven years after getting a new pronoun plugged into their language, be more likely to assume this androgynous cartoon was a man? A woman? Either, or neither? Now that they had a word for it, a nonbinary option, would they think to use it?

And they did. Not only did the Swedish speakers use the nonbinary option to describe the, let’s face it, nonbinary human, but in other surveys they deployed hen (as well as han, but the feminine hon, too) to describe people in stories when their genders weren’t specified. Now it’s true, the researchers don’t have comparable tests from before 2012, before hen. So this result is, as UCLA political psychologist Efrén Pérez says, merely suggestive. Still, though, “this word has no biological associations. It’s from scratch. And it’s performing the way some proponents argued it would,” says Pérez, co-author of a paper describing these tests in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These language changes can nudge people in directions some folks find normatively worthy.”

This is the implicit promise of letting people choose their pronouns, and of having some of those pronouns be disconnected from gender. Sure, it’s good to find language that accommodates people’s identities, especially if that identity doesn’t fit the binary masculine/feminine split. But more than that, new words (and maybe old words with new uses, like singular they/them, but more on that in a bit) can incept that new idea into everyone—the binary isn’t the end of the story, masculine isn’t the default, and people should be able to decouple action and concepts from gender. “Most people don’t have ready-made attitudes on most things we think are important. If your language nudges you in some direction, it should have some nontrivial effect on your opinion,” says Pérez. “You could boil it down to, how does the language you speak affect how you see the world?”

Languages handle pronouns and gender in different ways. Some avoid gender altogether, some gender just the pronouns, others inflect the nouns, too. Certain languages even use masculine words or forms as plurals or generics—like “all mankind,” for example, as a stand-in for all people. That’s called androcentrism, the idea that men also represent everyone. And over the years, linguists and other social scientists have come up with a few ideas to combat it—to neutralize androcentric terminology and concepts. You can pare down pairs of masculine and feminine words with the same meaning to just one—aviator and aviatrix to pilot, waiter and waitress to waiter, author and authoress to author. You could make up new words and terms—firefighter, mail carrier, police officer. In pronoun land, that’d be ideas like ze or e. Or you could do what English seems to be trending toward, which is to take a non-gendered, plural, third-person pronoun—they—and repurpose it as singular.

The Swedes went big. In 2012 Jesper Lundquist wrote a children’s book, Kivi and the Monster Dog, that referred to the main character with, as others had proposed, the neologized pronoun hen, essentially borrowed from neighboring Finland’s non-gendered pronoun hän. Lundquist, his publisher, and a linguist working on gender followed up with an editorial in a big newspaper saying that life should imitate art. Drama ensued; people argued. What-about-the-children got deployed. A newspaper banned hen. An entertainment magazine mandated it. The Swedish Language Council, the quasi-final authority on Swedish, came out against. Finally, two years after the kids’ book came out, the Swedish Language Council reversed itself. Hen was now, for real, Swedish.

Now the word has snuggled into Swedish society. It’s common in the media. People report knowing about it and using it. It still has opposition—from people who don’t believe humans can have a nonbinary gender identity, and from grammatical originalists (with a soupçon of folks who wish nonbinary people could have their own pronoun in addition to a non-gendered pronoun for everyone else). But their numbers are declining.

But, OMG, just because a language metabolizes a new word doesn’t mean it changes how people think or feel. So that’s what Pérez and his partner, Margit Tavits at Washington University in Saint Louis, wanted to check. After years of henning and hawing, had people changed their ways? The hypothesis is that having hen would help people build a more equitable society. So when Tavits and Pérez got their results, they hypothesized that the newly available pronoun had, in their parlance, decreased the mental bias toward men and enhanced the salience of women, LGBTQ, and nonbinary people. It also lent support to an old, controversial idea in linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic determinism—the words you have at your disposal frame how you see the world. “One possibility, and it’s speculative, is that it’d be sort of like encouraging people in the US to use ‘they’ as gender-neutral,” Pérez says. “It would be weird at first, but if we integrated it into our grammatical toolkit, the novelty wears off. That’s part of what I think is happening in Sweden.”

It’s almost certainly true that time sands the edges off of new syntax and grammar. When William Safire wrote an “On Language” column for the New York Times about the still-nascent honorific “Ms.” in 1984, he was grudging at best. Marvel Comics had introduced Ms. (now Captain) Marvel, and there was even a feminist magazine called Ms. The influential Safire still groused, but he had an insurmountable problem. Geraldine Ferraro was running for Vice President, and the Times’ inviolable house style insisted on an honorific. But it couldn’t be “Miss.” Ferraro was married. But she’d kept her own last name, so she couldn’t be “Mrs. Ferraro.” So Safire capitulated under duress. By 2009, when the new “On Language” columnist Ben Zimmer returned to the subject, the ruling on usage wasn’t even a question. Zimmer traced its origins back to 1901, acknowledged that it was part of the landscape of American English, and didn’t even bother subtweeting Safire.

In surveys about resistance to non-gendered language, people often say they can’t get past how weird the new usages or words seem, no matter how old the precedents might be. Just as happened with “Ms.,” if “they” becomes the nonbinary pronoun of choice in English, eventually its quirks—bound to happen when you try to make a plural singular—will lose their apparent quirkiness. We’ll get used to it.

Except even so, it turns out that “they” is no hen. Are no hen. Whatever. “They” might not perform up to hen’s specs. Old terms bring some baggage. In one study—looking at English and Swedish words and speakers—68 percent of English-speaking respondents associated “they” with the masculine gender, compared to a 50-50 split with ze. “In Swedish, we saw that ‘she/he,’ writing them together, produced equivalent amounts of male and female perception, and ‘hen’ also did that,” says Marie Gustafsson Sendén, a psychologist at Stockholm University who studies the new lingo. In English, though, “they” and even the seemingly neutral “the person” were associated with a masculine bias. “You can reframe a word if you do a lot of work with it,” Sendén says. “But a smart new word might be more efficient.”

Whether or not “they” or some newer term becomes English’s mainstream non-gendered pronoun, what all this research suggests is that deferring to people’s preferred pronouns is more than mere “political correctness” or social-media performance. It’s a way of giving people new, more inclusive ways of seeing the world. “The work we have here suggests that it’s more likely that matters in subtle ways,” Pérez says. “You perceive not different realities, but you place more or less emphasis on different things.”

New language, then, can become a useful tool for changing how people deal with each other. Think of it as the opposite of censorship—instead of trying to delete ideas from culture, new words can contribute them. “I’m second-generation Mexican-American. It’s a very male-centered way of life, especially for the immigrants who came here. Culture dies hard sometimes,” Pérez says. “How can you shift people’s viewpoints on these red-meat issues? The answer can’t be, wait ’til the culture dies out, or wait for a new generation.”

But if you recognize that one way culture entrains gender ideas is through language itself, that gives you a lever, among many, to nudge in the direction of change. “If you’re trying to man all stations, this is one thing you can do,” Pérez says.

“Wait,” I say. “You mean, ‘staff all stations,’ right?”

Pérez laughs. “That was second-generation me,” he says.

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