I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to take the late Barry Stroud’s final Later Wittgenstein course for undergraduates at Berkeley, back in 2017. In addition to inspiring many more traditional philosophical writings, it also inspired this slightly more unusual piece (which I didn’t hand in…though perhaps I should have!). Enjoy!
There was once a time when children in English-speaking countries were assigned one of two pronoun pairs at birth. Nowadays, most people probably don’t even remember what those were.
While it’s easy to imagine that we always used the “han/hanen” pronoun pair, in fact, these words only came into use after centuries of a problematic deployment of an archaic binary pronoun division. And it was not these archaic English forerunners which gave way to our current usage.
But first, what were those forerunners?
There was a time when a child was assigned either the “he/his” pronoun pair or the “she/her” pronoun pair. Historians are divided on what the precise factors were which went into making the decision about which pair a child received, but there is a strong consensus that those who received “she/her” were designated to a lower-level status in society.
At one time, those designated with the “she/her” pronoun were prohibited from participating in even the most basic elements of society, such as working and voting, let alone activities like pursuing a hobby, higher education, or political leadership.
Additionally, for centuries there was almost no say in which category you were designated — once you were assigned, that was it. This was true even as late as the 2020s.
So, where did we get “han/hanen”?
While no one knows exactly how this pronoun pair entered into popular usage in the English language, historians hypothesize that our word “han” derives originally from the Finnish word “hän” (pronounced the same as in English). In Finnish, “hän” is just like our “han”: it is one pronoun pair which can be used to refer to anybody.
Further evidence for the Finnish derivation is supported by the fact that our possessive pronoun — hanen — also mirrors the much older Finnish word “hänen” (which is, itself, a possessive pronoun for the Finnish “hän”, and is also pronounced the same as in English).
Sociologist Eeva Karjalainen has conjectured that the adoption of “han” in English may have been somehow connected to the increase in the recognition of “they” as a singular pronoun in English around the turn of the 21st century. It is notable, for instance, that “hän” was often translated to English as “they” during that time.
While it is unclear exactly how we borrowed these words from Finnish, what is clear is that our abandonment of the archaic, stratifying pronoun system would eventually help lead (along with the overthrow of the system and, thus, systemic racism) to the gender-equal society we know today.
Modern day English speakers should feel a deep gratitude toward the Finns, who long ago found the binary pronoun division deeply inadequate and deeply flawed.