Sweden is going through another “sexual revolution.” Traditional gender roles and stereotypes have been so thoroughly challenged in all spheres of life (politics, labor laws, advertising, clothing, sports – you name it) that time has come for change the lexicon and the grammar of the Swedish language.
The linguistic devices that are affected by a societal shift to gender-neutrality are personal names, pronouns and, potentially, kinship terms. There are currently 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden. Swedish parents are increasingly likely to give a girl a traditional boy’s name and a boy a traditional girl’s name. The online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia now contains a new pronoun hen defined as a gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of han ‘he’ and hon ‘she’. It’s kinship terms’ turn now and a male writer, Jasper Lundqvist, is publishing a gender neutral book for children (see above) called “Kivi och monsterhund” (Kivi and monster dog). This book is full of neologisms such as mappor, pammor (instead of gender-specific mammor ‘mothers’ and pappor ‘fathers’), morbroster (from morbror ‘uncle, mother’s brother’ and moster ‘aunt, mother’s sister’) and bröstrar (from bröder ‘brothers’, and systrar ‘sisters’).
Time will show how sticky these new kinship terms, personals names and the pronoun hen are, but, in at least two ways, these changes are systematic.
First, there’s a tendency for kinship terms and personal names to develop similar gender marking. In Spanish, gender-specific affixes affect both kinship terms and personal names in a patterned fashion (comp. Mario/Maria and hermano ‘brother’/hermana ‘sister’).
Second, many Swedish kinship terms are already highly compounded, descriptive and artificial, being juxtapositions of simple kinship terms (e.g., farbror ‘father’s brother’, morbror ‘mother’s brother’). The portmanteau formations such as mappor don’t seem to come out of the blue in a pure response to sociopolitical forces related to gender; rather they could qualify as changes originating in the internal structure of the kinship terminology or at least as changes heavily constrained by it.
Third, kinship terminologies show a global trend toward progressive expulsion of Ego Gender and Speaker Gender (see The Genius of Kinship). This can clearly be seen in sibling terminologies where the progressive removal of Ego Gender and Relative Age results in the dramatic simplification of sibling sets (Swedish systar and broder, just like their cognates in other Indo-European languages, are already heavily simplified sets). If we look at the opposite pole of terminological elaboration of sibling sets (and concomitantly at the geographically opposite side of the globe from Sweden), we find that societies differentiating their siblings in linguistically complex ways also exhibit a similar concern with gender segregation in siblings’ roles, outward appearance and behaviors. As reported by Garcilaso de la Vega (Royal Commentaries of the Incas. Austin and London, 1966, 4, 2, 211) about the colonial Incas, boys and girls were supposed to strictly adhere to the proper usage of kinship terms marked by Ego Gender, otherwise boys would become girls and girls would become boys.
While a Swedish toy catalog (see above, left) is experimenting with showing a boy pushing a pink stroller to appeal to gender-neutral parents, the Incas of colonial times were busy enforcing the opposite – the strict segregation of gender outfits and behaviors through language from an early age. The two behaviors are apparently associated or consistent with two radically different ways of manifesting gender in kinship terms because saying is being.
It’s possible that the reason why gender dynamics in society correlate so intricately with gender indexing in kinship terms, pronouns and personal names is because it’s precisely in these classes of language items that ontology impinges upon language.