Tag Archives: sweden

Nerds Fight Back in Sweden

I’m finding Sweden increasingly entertaining. I’ve never actually been there, my daughter has made me sit through Mamma Mia too many times and I have recently battled through more IKEA furniture than you can shake a flat-packed bedpost at, but nonetheless, my affection for the country grows. Purely linguistically, that is.

Earlier this year, an edict suggesting the creation of the word Hen as an asexual pronoun caused an international stir. Now, language has once again proved deliciously controversial and prompted wider questions about whether English should follow suit.

The dispute is over the word ‘Nerd’ in the official dictionary of the Swedish Academy, the Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. The definition, “a simplistic and ridiculous person, dork”, or various translations of the original “enkelspårig och löjeväckande person, tönt” has caused anger among the United Nerds of Sweden (OK, I’m not sure that such an organisation exists, but wouldn’t it be great if it did).

Anyway, more than 5,000 people have now signed Nörduppropet, an online petition arguing that the definition needs to change to reflect the drive and commitment of the average nerd, and the page is swamped with positively-spun alternatives which stress the hard work, dedication and zeal of nerds around the world.

So is the definition fair, and should we be similarly bashing the doors of English dictionary makers to make them revisit their definitions? Let’s have a look. While the Oxford Dictionary has a sense of “a single-minded expert in a particular field”, its primary definition is “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. And dictionary.com is not much better, with “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person”, though it does also have the computer nerd sense.

Of course we are not going to start campaigning to change this. The reason? The definitions are accurate. Nerd is a pejorative word. While it undoubtedly covers the hard work and dedication of large numbers of people, and the world would be different if it wasn’t for the work of computer nerds who have created the technology we live by today, the sense of social inadequacy is just as much a part of the meaning as all of the positive connotations. I think the petition suggests that people don’t really like admitting that about themselves. There is nothing wrong with calling yourself a nerd, but in order to do it positively, you have to be slightly tongue in cheek about it and admit that it carries negative as well as positive connotations. I will freely admit I am a word nerd, which makes me frankly irritating at times. However, I don’t see myself ever signing a petition to change the meaning of a word when it has been rendered accurately.

Sweden’s dictionary makers perhaps need to add an extra sense to their definition to cover the hard work. But if they were to completely change the meaning, it would lose its quintessential nerdiness, and indeed accuracy. And I don’t think nerds would ever really stand for something that wasn’t absolutely correct.

Sweden Eliminates Men and Women

There has been a fascinating linguistic development in Sweden, and one that poses a question for a possible future change in English.

Gender politics is a hot topic in the Scandinavian country, and it recently led to the publication of what was described as the country’s first gender neutral children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund. The gender neutrality came from the use of a new personal pronoun instead of ‘han’ for he or ‘hon’ for she. The word that was used was ‘hen’.

Hen has now taken a step towards official recognition by being included in the country’s National Encyclopedia. So the question for English is: do we need a new word to be created to exist alongside ‘he’ and ‘she’ which allows things to be described without a potential user’s gender?

English already has alternatives. ‘They’ is often used when a person’s sex is unknown. ‘It’ is another possibility, albeit one that seems to depersonalise people. But I think in English, any change would purely be one of practicality, rather than linguistic politics, which seems to be the driving force behind the Swedish decision.

Which is not to say that English does not have inherent sexism built in, it is just that I don’t think this is it. The English language is full of what can be called unequal lexical pairs, where the male and female equivalents of a word carry more differences in meaning than just the gender difference. Think about master and mistress. On the surface, they should be equivalent titles, like Mr and Mrs. But a Master of Arts has expertise in an academic subject; a Mistress of Arts sounds like the kind of person who would charge a premium for personal services. And in that vein, a man who is active between the sheets is a gigolo, praised for his virility. Language unkindly has pejorative words like slut for the female equivalent – language summing up the prevailing sexist attitudes of centuries gone by.

So does language reflect thought or condition it? I think it is the former, though I have long been fascinated by the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak affects how you think, so if certain words are not present, your world view is affected. This is a complex subject, not easily dismissed, but the absence of a word does not stop a person having a thought. Instead, we should see language as a reflection of where it has come from and watch how changes in society then permeate through to everyday speech.

Which brings us back to Sweden, and a pronoun whose creation seems very clearly to represent a mood in the country, as well as being a great catalyst for a conversation about political correctness gone too far. Is this a change that is needed in English? Probably not. Could it be brought in even if it was needed? Definitely not.

There is one context in which it would be useful, however. The Wordability family will expand later this year with a second child. I currently refer to the growing baby as ‘he or she’, as I don’t want to commit myself, and as pointed out above, ‘it’ just seems too clinical and object like.

Maybe I should just adopt ‘hen’ for the foreseeable future.