Sweden’s genderless pre-school bans ‘he’ and ‘she’

The question of gender and its importance in language and society has recently been raised following the banning of the terms ‘he’ and ‘she’ at a Swedish pre-school.  The school – named ‘Egalia’ – introduced the measure to allow children to develop regardless of their gender.  Teachers at the school in Stockholm refer to the children by their names, as ‘friends’ or by using the term ‘hen’, a unisex pronoun borrowed from the Finnish language, rather than using gender-specific pronouns.

This news has sparked debate worldwide regarding the importance of gender stereotypes, typical roles of men and women, and benefits and disadvantages of the policy in terms of child development.  From a language point of view, it also raises the topic of personal pronouns, gender, and whether the two are always necessary and how commonly they are used.

In Chinese, for example, the words for ‘him’, ‘her’ and ‘it’ all sound the same, and it is only when they are written that the difference becomes clear: 他 =him, 她 = her, 它 = it.  In Spanish, it is not always necessary to use the pronoun as it is in English and French.  As a result, ‘dice’ can mean ‘he says’ and also ‘she says’.  The personal pronouns are sometimes used to distinguish between subjects, using ‘ella habla’ to show that a female is the subject of the verb.  The lack of pronoun can cause confusion, particularly when Spanish if not your first language and you get lost in a conversation and struggle to work out exactly who did what!

So, how important are gender-specific pronouns?  Does avoiding them create better chances of equality?  Does their removal place even greater importance on them?  Is it sexist that if there are a million girls and just one boy in a group, we use ‘ils’ instead of ‘elles’ when speaking French?  How important is language in encouraging equality between males and females?  Is it a useful tool, or is the latest Swedish initiative, as Philip Hwang, Professor of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg opines, “naive to say the least”, and merely “a symbolic gesture”?  Only time will tell – it wil be interesting to study, in years to come, whether students of the Egalia school view gender differently to others, or whether changing the language used will have little effect.