What is hän?

Hän is the gender-neutral Finnish personal pronoun that treats everyone equally.

Hän is the gender-neutral Finnish personal pronoun that treats everyone equally.

In the Finnish language, personal pronouns (words used as substitutes for a person’s name, such as he and she) do not specify whether the person discussed is a woman or a man. One word – hän – refers to women, men and people of other genders alike. 

The use of a gender-neutral personal pronoun hän in the Finnish language offers the opportunity to use inclusive language. Similar gender-neutral personal pronouns are typical of languages related to Finnish, Finno-Ugric languages. The use of gender-neutral personal pronouns is also a feature of some other languages, such as Sino-Tibetan, Altaic and Bantu languages.

Hän has been part of Finnish ever since the early variants of the language. Hän can also be found in Abckiria (“The ABC book”), the first printed book that was published in Finnish in 1543. 

In 1863, the Finnish language was made an official language in Finland and written and standard variants of Finnish were created. Until then, Swedish and Russian had been the languages of the upper classes. As the project of creating a standardised, written form of Finnish began, hän was defined to specifically refer to a person of any gender, whereas earlier hän could also refer to animals. 

Within recent decades, there have been initiatives for adopting a more gender-neutral vocabulary among many languages that are widely spoken in the Western world. In Swedish, for example, the gender-neutral personal pronoun hen has been created and taken into use alongside the feminine personal pronoun hon and the masculine han. Some speakers of English, on the other hand, have suggested that the gendered titles Mr, Mrs and Ms should be replaced or complemented with an alternative, Mx. In Finnish, however, there has always been a gender-neutral word at hand.

In addition to Finnish, there are several languages in the world that have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. In many of these languages the personal pronoun carries other meanings, such as the class or rank of a person. In Finnish, these meanings are left out, and one word – hän – can refer to a king or a beggar, someone with a PhD or a child only starting school.

Admittedly, one word alone will not make a language, culture or society equal or inclusive. The equalising effect of the pronoun hän has indeed been questioned – read more about these views in the Q&A.

However, a pronoun that is the same for everyone is a good start. When a speaker of Finnish calls someone hän, it doesn’t matter which gender or social status the person represents. We Finns focus on what else the person does, knows or represents.