When my wife and I arrived in Finland in the year 2000, Tarja Halonen was president and within a few years, albeit briefly, Anneli Jäätteenmäki became Prime Minister. Yet many of our students were mysteriously and repeatedly referring to Tarja Halonen as ‘he’, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The root of this problem lies, of course, in the Finnish hän, which treats both male and female as a gender neutral personal pronoun. To our British minds this seemed wholly confusing, if not bizarre.
A little research, however, and we soon discover that Finnish is not alone in abandoning explicit reference to gender. Estonian, Turkish, Persian, Malay, Indonesian, Cantonese, Bengali, Vietnamese and a few other languages are spoken by millions of men and women getting by quite cheerfully without making a linguistic distinction between he or she. That said, English is rather keen on the distinction and, as teachers, we have been witness to frequent confusion resulting from Finns referring to a she as a he.
One of the strangest cases of he/she confusion I have come across was that of a student who was a passionate fan of JK Rowling. The student repeatedly (and without exception) referred to Rowling using male pronouns. When the teacher suggested ‘she’, the lesson took an unexpected turn. The student stood their ground and insisted that JK Rowling was a he and that they weren’t committing a typical Finnish mistake. The basis of the student’s thinking was the blurb on the back of the Finnish language editions of the early Harry Potter books. Here the gender free ‘hän on’ (he is, if you don’t happen to know otherwise) was used with no accompanying photo of the author. Well, what a moment this was. Instead of correcting grammar, we were now changing sex, an altogether trickier operation and one that our teacher training had failed to prepare us for.
Curiously, in moving on from the Harry Potter novels, JK Rowling elected to publish under the male pen name Robert Galbraith. Her Finnish alter-ego, however, may have got there first.