This is the first in a new series: “Gender Mender” in which I’ll be helping you master using gender in different languages and showing you tricks to remember the gender of nouns. We’re starting with a look at how Welsh noun gender works and how to remember the genders of Welsh nouns.
Learning the system can be a real headache for two reasons.
First, you just have to clamp the correct gender to the correct noun and it can be difficult to remember. It doesn’t much help when a teacher says “just learn the gender along with the noun”. Even if you manage it, my experience is that before too long you may remember the word, but you’ll have forgotten the gender.
Second, choices have consequences. It’s not just a matter of the grating sound (to a native) of the wrong “the”. The gender of a noun also has knock-on grammatical effects in the sentence.
In this post, we’ll introduce the genders in Welsh and discover how gender affects other words in the phrase. Just when does gender matter in Welsh?
Then come some tips for how to remember the gender of individual words.
First what are the odds if you just guess? It turns out, for Welsh, not at all bad.
Second, you’ll learn about some memory tricks.
Third, I’ll talk about the importance of learning gender in the context of a chunk of language or a phrase.
Finally, we’ll look at common patterns of Welsh noun gender distribution (mainly by meaning of the word or the ending of the word). After the post there’s a long list of examples and exceptions that you’ll be able to draw on throughout your time learning Welsh.
Taken together, the tricks, patterns and word lists will mean that your odds of getting the gender right can only get better.
Before we go any further: if you’ve not started Welsh yet (or are just starting) and are keen to find out more about yr iaith (the language), my good friend and fellow Welsh-learner Kerstin Cable explores in her “Dabbler’s Guide to Welsh”. It’s a great value taster of what Welsh is all about. Check out her info and enrolment page here: Kerstin’s “Dabbler’s Guide”.
What is grammatical gender?
“Grammatical gender” is just a way of grouping words into different “noun classes”. If you’ve studied French you’ll be used to nouns being either “le” (masculine) or “la” (feminine). In Italian it’s “il” or “la” and in Portuguese simply “o” or “a”.
In German it’s “der” or “die”…and then, just as you thought it was safe to open your mouth: “das” (neuter).
In Dutch, masculine and feminine have merged, so that you’re left with a “common gender” and a residue of about ten percent of nouns that are “neuter” and it’s similar in Swedish.
There is no automatic correlation between grammatical gender and sex, although biological gender is sometimes part of the picture.
The only major trace of the full Germanic masculine-feminine-neuter gender system that existed in Old English are the personal pronouns he, she or it and their possessive forms: his, hers or its.
Other languages do not have gender at all, such as modern Persian or Finnish.
There’s no word for “he” or “she” in Finnish. Everything – and everybody – is it. So, gals, don’t be offended if you hear a Finn using “he”, “him” or “his” in relation to you. To the Finn, this distinction is as bizarre as referring to a table as “he” or saying “her leaves are falling” in relation to a tree would be to us.
There are other systems of noun classification.
Many Indo-Pacific language and some African languages such as Bantu classify in a range of categories such as “human being”, “body parts” liquids narrow objects, animals. Again, which words go into which group is not always logical (the blanket term “animal” in Bantu is in the “human” class, I gather).
Meet the Welsh genders
Welsh has two genders, masculine or “gwrywaidd” and feminine or “benywaidd”. The good news is that there’s no gender in the plural. Gotta take that comfort where you can get it!
If you’re coming at gender from French, Italian or German, an unusual feature of Welsh is that the definite article (“the”) doesn’t tell you the gender. The definite article or “fannod” as it’s called in Welsh is “y”. It’s the same (regardless of whether a noun is masculine or feminine). It’s pronounced like the “a”s in English “ago” or “comma” or the “u” in “gut”, depending on your English pronunciation (not like a “y” as in “penny” or even “my”).
The fannod is only modified to ease pronunciation: it becomes “yr” before a noun beginning with a vowel and is abbreviated to “-‘r” after a vowel. This change is similar to our adding an “n” to the indefinite article “a” before a vowel as in “an apple” or, erm, “an ‘n'”.
Talking of indefinite articles, Welsh, – like Russian – doesn’t have one. So, no worrying about your “un” and “une” or your “ein” or “eine”.
If there isn’t an indefinite article and the definite article is fixed is it a case of “Move on please, ladies and gentlemen, nothing to see here?”.
For better or worse, no, it certainly isn’t.
While the fannod doesn’t show gender, the demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that” do. “Hwn” (this) and “hwnnw” (that) are used after masculine nouns and “hon” (this) or “honno” (that) are used after feminine nouns. So, “y ci hwn” (this dog – masculine), “y gath honno” (that cat – feminine).
So far, so good.
Now, enter mutations.
A characteristic of the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton) is that certain initial sounds in nouns change in certain set ways in certain circumstances. In Welsh an initial “c” can become “g” (treiglad meddal/soft mutation), “ch” (treiglad llaes/aspirate mutation) or “ng” (treiglad trwynol/nasal mutation).
Here’s the first rule:
If the noun is feminine, the fannod will cause a soft mutation.
In other words, after “the”, the first letter changes from c to g, t to d, p to b, d to dd, b to f and g to, erm….well, g just disappears. So, “cath”, cat, is feminine, so it’s “y gath” (the cat). “Ci” (dog) is masculine, so it’s “y ci” (the dog).
The possessive pronouns (his, her or its in English – but no its in Welsh) also reflect the gender of the “owner”. The patter is ei + noun with soft mutation + ef (for his) or ei + noun with aspirate mutation + hi (for “her”). For example, cath, y gath is cat. His cat is “ei gath ef”. Her cat is “ei chath hi”.
The “owner” could be an animal or inanimate object (still called “he” or “she” in Welsh).
Just as the fannod causes the soft mutation of a feminine noun, so does “un” meaning the number “one”. So it’s “un ci” (one dog – masculine) but “un gath” (one cat – feminine).
Although there’s only one form for the number “one”, there are separate feminine and masculine forms for “two”, “three” and “four”.
Before masculine nouns two is “dau”, before feminine it is “dwy”. Before masculine three is “tri”, before feminine it is “tair”. Before masculine four is “pedwar” and before feminine it is “pedair”.
The ordinal numbers “third” and “fourth” also have their own gendered forms. “Third” is “trydedd” for feminine, and “trydydd” for masculine. “Fourth” is “pedwaredd” for feminine nounse and “pedwerydd” for masculine.
Like in French, adjectives in Welsh usually come after the noun.
Adjectives after feminine nouns take the soft mutation: y sosban fach; y gath ddu; y llwy bren.
By the way, those adjectives that come before the noun soft mutate the qualified noun whether masculine or feminine: hen ddyn, hen wraig.
Some adjectives have feminine forms (usually, logically, seen in their soft mutated forms).
In his book on Welsh grammar, Stephen J. Williams lists thirty-nine of them, many quite common.
There are sixteen where a “w” used in the masculine changes to “o” when the adjective qualifies a feminine noun: crwn, crom (bent) (as in acen gron (the circumflex accent or “to bach”), compare crwn/cron (round, circular); dwfn, dofn (deep); tlws, tlos (pretty); trwm, trom (heavy).
There are 22 where masculine “y” changes to feminine “e”: bychan, bechan (small); byr, ber (as in “stori fer”)(short); cryf, cref (strong); gwyn, gwen (white); llym, llem (strict); melyn, melen (yellow); syml, seml (simple).
There’s one adjective, “brith” (speckled) where the “i” turns to “ai” to give “braith”.
All these feminine forms are often heard but not always consistently used, particularly in the spoken language and in informal writing. Williams also notes the tendency to use the masculine form in sentences like “mae’r nant yn sych” (cf “nant sech yw hi”).
Aside from this small number of adjectives, the rest do not have separate masculine and feminine forms.
Strategies for learning Welsh noun gender
Some languages have “transparent” systems of marking gender. In other words, the word ending. In Italian nouns ending in -o are masculine and in -a are feminine. In Russian, too, the gender is often clear from the ending (and Russian also has case endings on determiners, adjectives and nouns which indicate the gender. So do determiners (other words like articles which make it clear which things we’re talking about for “many”, “most”, “a few”, “all”).
Welsh, though, is like French in that it’s not possible to be sure of the gender from the ending of the word and you don’t have case endings to help you along (case endings, help?….)
What, then, is a learner to do?
There are several approaches all of which you’ll probably find yourself trying.
Just guess Welsh noun gender?
If your back is against the wall, guess masculine!
Around 60% of Welsh words are masculine. That’s an unusually high proportion (in French it’s about 59% masculine, in German the highest is 45% feminine, Russian 47% masculine).
The odds, then, are already good.
In practice, you’re going to do a lot better than this, by following the techniques set out below.
Use colour coding to remember Welsh noun gender?
The method I used when I started learning Welsh was to have flashcards with the masculine written in blue (for a boy, geddit?) and the feminine in red (because I didn’t have a pink biro).
This feels useful at the beginning but I’m not sure how much it really helps longer term. It’s too passive and associating a word with a colour is maybe too banal to stick in the memory.
What do you think? Have you tried this method with Welsh or another language?
Use mental images to help?
A supercharged version of colour coding is to choose two memorable images – one masculine and one feminine – to associate with each word of the corresponding gender.
“Tân” (fire) is masculine. So, you can imagine each masculine word on fire (or, in the case of abstracts, try to imagine a related scene). Make the image as memorable as possible – smell that smoke, hear those flames devour the object or concept.
Dŵr is also masculine. You could imagine masculine objects being submerged or spouting water.
“Ceg” means mouth and is feminine. You could image yourself chewing each feminine object or have it hanging out of your mouth.
Or you could imagine feminine words bobbing up and down in an “afon” (river) or being swept over a “rhaeadr” (waterfall) (probably best to take “tân” rather than “dŵr” as your masculine, then, to keep the watery images firmly on one side of the fence).
Learn Welsh noun gender in context
Kids learning their mother tongue pick up gender simply by relying on context. They always hear the word behaving according to its gender.
In French or German, it’s gender is flagged even before the word itself due to the gendered pronouns (he, she, his, her…) articles or other determiners.
Because the Welsh article and determiners (apart from the pronouns) do not show gender, it takes them longer than French or German kids to learn all the gender or words that they’re using….even as long as age nine or so (according to research by Enlli Môn Thomas).
That’s because a major indicator of Welsh noun gender IN CONTEXT are the less overt cues from the relative complex system of mutations.
Just because kids rely on this complex context, doesn’t mean should suspend our powers of overview and reasoning, to apply a more conscious system, though.
First, we can be aware of the subject and ending groups and the exceptions I’ll set out below.
Second, we can “read over” from set chunks of language we’ve learned to get the gender right in other context.
The more experienced you get as a learner, the more you’ll be able to do this.
But you’ll only be able to do it to maximum effect if you’re all over the gender-related aspects of mutation system (as described above).
To repeat: to speed up the process you should be aiming to understand how it works consciously….not just relying on childlike instinct.
How will this work as you gain learner experience and exposure?
Take the word “wyneb” (face) as an example. I wouldn’t know whether it’s Xyr wyneb honX (this face, feminine) or yr wyneb hwn (this face, masculine). However, I do know the adjective dau-wynebog (two-faced, deceitful). Since that word includes the masculine word for “two” and not the feminine “dwy”, I’d summise that wyneb is masculine. This time, I’d be right 🙂
Take chunks of language you do know and work out the gender from there.
Examples of common chunks you might become very familiar with early on – even before you start learning Welsh if you live in Wales might be “y Stryd Fawr” (the high street – mawr is mutated, so stryd must be feminine). You might also know placenames like Castell Coch (coch isn’t mutated, so castell must be masculine), Fforest Fach (fach is mutated, so fforest must be feminine).
Once you get into Welsh classes, I’ll bet you’ll be singing songs like “Sosban fach” (which will tell you that sosban is feminine) and “Gafr wen” (which tells you that “goat” is feminine).
So, you’ll often be able to use the crutches of context. The further on you get, the more you’ll have to go on and the quicker you’ll be able to do it.
Be aware of helpful Welsh noun gender patterns
You should also be aware of groups of words which tend to be masculine or feminine. (I was going to head this section “Group S*x” and see what that does for my site visitor numbers 😉 .
First, there are groups based on meaning.
For example, words associated with time tend to be masculine. Names of natural features such as rivers or trees are feminine.
Second, there are groups based on ending pattern. For example, words which end in -aeth are usually feminine.
Remember, these are not hard and fast rules. “Gwasanaeth” (service) is masculine, for example.
Finally, you need to be aware of a small, but noisy gangs of slippery words. In the “awkward squad” there are words where the gender varies according to context (are you talking about a biological male or female) or a change in gender changes meaning.
There are also words whose gender can vary according to dialect, personal preference or because nobody’s sure at all.
At the end of this post, I’ve added pretty comprehensive lists of each of these categories. This will repay your sustained attention and remember….
That’ll be heart – “y galon” (feminine) – of course.
When you’re just starting a language, the sheer volume of new words and structures can be overwhelming. The last thing I want to do is add to that overwhelm.
If you’re a beginner, take the practical tips from this piece and start to get a sense of the system.
You can look on the info in this post as setting the scene and as something to come back to repeatedly during the course of your progress towards fluency and beyond.
That’s particularly true for the lists below. Some of the words listed are very common, but others you won’t need till you’re an intermediate/advanced learner
Whatever you do, don’t let Welsh noun gender – or Welsh mutations – get in the way of enjoying the language as you learn.
Remember, natives sometimes make mistakes or are unsure of the gender.
Usually, you’ll be understood.
As you get better, it starts to feel good to start getting the hang of the system and then….it starts to feel even better.
How has gender been for you so far in your Welsh studies? Are there any tricks and tips I should add to my list? Are there things which you’re finding particularly challenging? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.
Ten ways to support Welsh, even if you don’t speak the language
Welsh noun gender lists
Clues by meaning – patterns and exceptions
People and animals – grammatical gender follows biological gender, different words for each
Words for people and animals by biological gender usually have the “logical” grammatical gender, so tad (father) is masculine, mam (mother) is feminine. Other pairs include brawd (brother), chwaer (sister); ceffyl or march (stallion), caseg (mare); tarw (bull), buwch (cow); baedd or twrch (boar, male pig), hwch (sow); ceiliog (cockerel or rooster), iar (hen); hwrdd or maharen (ram), dafad, mamog (sheep); ci (dog), gast (bitch).
People and animals – grammatical gender is fixed and ignores biological gender
Some nouns referring to people and animals with biological gender are “deurhyw” or fixed gender (used regardless of the biological sex). The following are always masculine: baban, maban, perchen, perchennog, deiliad, plentyn, bardd, alarch, barcud, curyll, crychydd, eryr, ehedydd, epa, carlwm, mwnci, cyw. Examples of nouns that are always feminine: cennad, celain, cath, gwenci, gwiwer, ysgyfarnog, colomen, cog, cwcw, eos, bronfraith, mwyalchen.
Williams adds that sometimes “male” or “female” can be added for clarity: yr alarch benyw, y gath wryw.
People and animals – grammatical gender follow biological gender, special female endings
Generating female forms of people and animals formed by modifying the male:
1. add -es: arglwydd (lord), arglwyddes (lady); brenin (king), brenhines (queen); meistr (master), meistress (mistress); sant (male saint), santes (female saint); llew (lion), llewes (lioness). Sometimes there is a stem change: athro (male teacher), athrawes (female teacher); Cymro (Welshman), Cymraes (Welshwoman); lleidr (male thief), lladrones (female thief).
2. change -yn ending to -en: crwtyn (lad), croten (lass); hogyn (lad), hogen (lass); asyn (male ass), asen (female ass);
3. change -wr to –es: cenhadwr, cenhades; Almaenwr, Almanes; Ffrancwr, Ffrances.
4. change -(i)wr to -wraig: adroddwr, adroddwraig; pysgotwr, pysgotwraig.
In descriptions of roles (for example in job adverts) there is now a tendency to prefer (or coin) – ydd forms rather than -(i)wr/-wraig in the interests of equal opportunities. I’ve never quite followed this, because, to my mind, -ydd is not gender neutral, it’s a masculine form (with -yddes) as the feminine.
Perhaps the thinking is that it’s at least further from “gwr” (man).
So, an administrater was traditionally a gweinyddwr or (if feminine) a gweindyddes but now you’ll see the ugly gweinyddydd. I recently saw a job advert for a “gweinyddydd hawliau” (rights administrator – as in copyright, author’s rights etc) at S4C.
Now, what about innate objects and nouns for abstract concepts?
Objects that are usually masculine
Days of the week, months: “dydd”, “diwrnod” and the names of the days: Dydd Sul, Dydd Llun, Calan, Calanmai, Pasg, Sulgwyn (another clue is that it’s Sulgwyn and not XSulwenX – gwyn/gwen are the masculine and feminine forms for “white”), Nadolig. Exception: gŵyl (dros yr ŵyl), Gŵyl Ifan, Gŵyl Fair.
Seasons: the word “tymor” (season) and gwanwyn, haf, hydref, gaeaf.
Points of the compass: y gogledd, y de-ddwyrain, y de (c.f. y dde – right (as opposed to left)).
Materials or substances: arian, aur, derw, efydd, calch, dwfr, glaw, eira, rhew, iâ, brethyn, gwlân, pren, pridd, mawn, gwydr, lledr, melfed, sidan, bwyd, bara, cig, mêl, te, coffi, cwrw, ŷd, medd, dafn, darn etc. Execptions are torth, teisen, pastai, saig, gwledd, diod and fruits that end in -en.
Verb-nouns: y bwyta hwn (this eating), y canu drwg (the bad signing). But note two feminine exceptions: gafael (hold, tenure, grip, grasp) “ei afael lac ef” (his tenuous grip) and cyfeddach (feasting, carousing).
Objects that are usually feminine
Gwlad (country) and other words denoting territories: Ardal, bro, ffin, ynys, teyrnas, tywysogaeth, talaith, cymdogaeth. Exceptions: tir, y rhandir, cyfandir, parth, rhanbarth, cylch. Goror can be either.
Proper names of countries themselves Cymru, Lloegr, Ffrainc, Yr Aifft, Yr Almaen.
Human settlements: tref, dinas, caer and names of individual towns and cities. Llandeilo Fawr. Any placename containing Tre(f), Llan-, Caer-, Ynys-, Ystrad-,
Rivers and streams: afon, nant and the names of rivers and streams. Excpetions – some old names containing “nant” such as Nantgarw.
Mountains: Carnedd Ddafydd, y Farteg. However “mynydd” – mountain – itself is masculine. So is “bryn” (hill). So, when “mynydd” or “bryn” are part of the name, the name will be masculine: Y Mynydd Du, Bryn-teg. There are some other masculine exceptions, such as Y Berwyn, Y Moelwyn).
Trees: the basic words coeden, colfen, gwydden are feminine. So are tree names, for example afallen (apple tree), derwen (oak), palmwydden (palm), olewydden (olive tree), miaren (blackberrry bush – usually found in the plural: mieri.
However, compound words with the masculine “pren” (wood) as the second element are – logically – masculine: ffigysbren (fig tree).
Croesbren (crucifix, yard (of a mast)) and crochbren (gallows, gibbet) are sometimes uses as feminine (following croes and crog).
Collective nouns denoting people or animals: cenedl (nation), ach (lineage, pedigree), hil (lineage, race), cymanfa (assembly – remember Cymanfa ganu – one of the familiar singing festivals found throughout Wales), cynhadledd (conference), cenfaint (herd, swarm, multitude), diaddell (flock), haid (swarm), mintai (troop, company), torf (crowd, throng), gwerin (the folk, a people), ysgol (school), cwt (queue). Exceptions: llu (throng, multitude), teulu (family), tylwyth (family, ancestry – remember y tylwyth teg – the fairies), llwyth (tribe), côr (choir), pwyllgor (committee), gweithgor (working group, committee), cyngor (council), bwrdd (board), undeb (union), cyfundeb (association, union), ciw (queue, line of people), cwmni (company), dosbarth (class), coleg (college), enwad (denomination).
Languages: y Gymraeg, yr Aeleg (Gaeleg – Gaelic) but they are masculine when mentioning a particular part of language or kind of language – Cymraeg da, Saesneg llafar, Gwyddeleg Diweddar.
Letters of the alphabet: the word “llythyren” (letter – as in a, b, c rather than a missive) and the individual letters: A fawr, dwy n, r ddwbl.
Clues by form
There is some overlap with the lists by meaning. Mainly abstract nouns but some substantive ones as well.
Endings that are usually masculine
-ad (but galwad (call) can be either – daeth yr alwad; – adur; -aint; -awd; -deb; -der; -did; -dod; -dra; -dwr; -edd (exceptions buchedd (life), cygnhanedd (metrical consonance – a unique feature of Welsh poetry), trugaredd (mercy). Ymgeledd (care) can be either); -er; -had (excpetion ordinhad (sacrament, ordinance – don’t confuse with the masculine ordainhad (ordination)); -i (exception – cenawdri (message, mission as in religious message); -iad; -iant; -id (addweid (promise)can be either); -in; -ineb (Williams notes that doethineb (wisdon) is sometimes feminine Mt xiii 54 “y doethineb hwn” Mc vi. 2 a pha doethineb yw hon?; -ioni; -ni; -og; -rwydd; -waith; -wm; -wch; -wr; -yd; -ydd; -yn (but blwyddyn (year), telyn (harp – e.g. y Delyn Aur), twymyn (fever, illness – y dwymyn goch – scarlet fever); odyn (kiln) (Williams explains that the origin of the word means that -yn is not an ending here).
Endings that are usually feminine
-ach; -aeth (but y gwasanaeth hwn (this service), hiraeth (longing), gwahaniaeth (difference), darfodedigaeth (extinction), lluniaeth (sustenance). Williams adds that amrwyiaeth (variation) and claddedigaeth (burial, funeral, interment) are masculine “as a rule” (i.e. it’s not a rule and they sometimes aren’t!); -as; -eb; -eg; -ell (excpetions castell (castle), cawell (cage)); -en (but maharen (ram)); -es (excpetion – hanes (history – when hanes means story, it’s feminine); -fa; -igaeth; -wraig; -yddes.
Adding -aid (-ful) or -od (blow) does not change the gender. So: dysgyl (a dish or cup) – dysgliad (cupful)(fem); llwy (spoon), llwyaid (spoonful)(fem); dwrn (fist), dyrnod (punch)(masc); ffon (stick or staff) ffonnod (blow from a stick)(fem), cern (cheek) cernod (slap, clout, hit on the face) (fem); y cleddyf (sword), cleddyfod (strike from a sword)(masc).
Compound words and Welsh noun gender
“The main element determines the gender. It is usually the second element that’s the main one, the first element merely qualifying it.
An example of such “proper compounds” (cyfansoddeiriau rhywiog) are ffermdy (farmhouse), beudy (barn), ysbyty (hospital), which all take their masculine gender from the dominant second element, masculine “tŷ” (house). In the same way, feminine “llan” (parsih) gives us feminine perllan (orchard), gwinllan (vinyard).
“Ci” is masculine, so is corgi (the breed of dog), milgi (greyhound) or – I have to add – ieithgi (language lover, -fanatic). “Gwaith” (work) gives us caledwaith (hard labour). Tref (town) is feminine, so we have meastref (suburb) and hendref (an established habitation or winter dwelling – e.g. when a shepherd moves down from the higher ground to spend the winter months (what geographers call “transhumance”. The opposite – the summer dwelling – is the “hafod” – often found in Welsh house and placenames). Exceptions: pentref (village), cartref (home), cantref (a “hundred” (medieval Welsh local administrative district as in “Cantre’r Gwaelod” the mysterious land that myth says lies flooded under Cardigan Bay). Llef (cry, screech) gives crochlef (an even louder screech), hunllef (nightmare).
An exception is canrif (century)– y ganrif hon (though rhif is masculine).
Occasionally the first element is the main one, qualified by the second (cyfansoddair afryw or “improper compound”). For example: pentan (mantel, chimney around and above the fire, as in silff bentan – mantelpiece), pencerdd (chief poet or musician), penrhyn (peninsular) (all masc); treftad (inheritance, patrimony), noswaith (evening)(both fem).
Nouns whose gender varies
1. according to the gender of the individual person or animal: priod (spouse), perthynas (relative), gefell (twin)(there’s also a feminine form you’ll hear – gefeilles), tyst (witness), cymar ((romantic, life) partner), ŵyr (grandson, you also hear wyres), llo (calf), cariad (darling, lover) ymwelydd (visitor), ysgrifennydd (secretary). Williams reports that even “dyn” (man) used to fall into this category and that “dynes” is a relatively recent – nineteenth/twentieth century informal coinage, as is ysgrifenyddes for female secretary).
2. according to meaning. Some of these are close or related meanings: y math hwn (this kind), y fath beth (such a thing), golwg (sight) as in yn y golwg (within view) or feminine for appearance, regard: gwael yr olwg. Man: yn y man (presently), yn y fan (immediately). Y coes – stem, handle; y goes the leg (coes osod – false leg). As already noted above, hanes is feminine to mean story and hanes is masculine to mean history.
Others have completely different meanings: y gwaith (work), y waith (occasion); y brawd (brother), y frawd (judgement); llif (masc) flood, llif (fem) (saw); llith (masc)(mash, bait), llith (lesson)(fem).
3. according to region or dialect: angladd (funeral), breuddwyd (dream), troed (foot), clust (ear), glin (hip), munud (minute), llygad (eye), rhyfel (war), cinio (dinner), cyflog (salary, pay), gwniadur (thimble), clorian (weighing scales).
4. according to personal taste: arfer (practice, habit – appropriately enough!), arwydd (sign, indication), awyrgylch (atmostphere), cyngerdd (concert), cri (shreek, cry), dawn (ability, gift, talent), delfryd (ideal), ergyd (blow, hit), nifer (a number as in a “number of reasons” rather than in a sequence as in “which number house” (where you’d use “rhif”), penbleth (confusion), ystyr (meaning, sense).
5. because nobody knows! This includes some loan words: blows (blouse), bws (bus), coler (collar), crafat (crafat), piano, stamp, record (I’m not going to translate those three, give me a break!), tei (tei), trên (train, locomotive).
As a final point, Welsh noun gender is sometimes unstable as part of a wider picture of language shift or language death due to the ubiquitous encroachment of English. In a 2001 study, Enlli Mon Thomas found that Welsh noun gender was still stable and acquired by native-speaking children in those areas of Gwynedd studied where the language remained strong. In areas of Wales where the language is very much a minority language, younger native speakers of the language may have less of a grasp on gender…and what about English natives from non-Welsh-speaking homes who learn Welsh in immersion education?
What next? Well, if you’re keen to find out more about Welsh, my good friend and fellow Welsh-learner Kerstin Cable explores in her “Dabbler’s Guide to Welsh”. It’s a great value taster of what to expect if you dive in to Welsh. Check out her info and enrolment page here: Kerstin’s “Dabbler’s Guide”.
(Sources: This list (and much of the hard language content above) is based mainly on the treatment of Welsh noun gender in the following: Stephen J Williams Elfennau Gramadeg Cymraeg (1980 edition). I’ve also used Peter Wynn Thomas Gramadeg y Gymraeg (1996), David A. Thorne A Comprehensive Welsh Grammar (1993), Enlli Mon Thomas’s 2001 PhD “Aspects of Gender Mutation in Welsh” and Michael Hammond’s article “Predicting the gender of Welsh Nouns”. Diolch i chi i gyd!)
Ten ways to support Welsh, even if you don’t speak the language
Minority language resources: a guide (first post in a series of five)
Mixi basati says
Thanks for the post, Gareth! I really liked this line in particular:
“Remember, natives are sometimes make mistakes or are unsure of the gender.”
Not sure if that was intentional or not, but it made me laugh.
I think you’re right, that paying attention to the mutations when reading and listening is probably the easiest way to keep track of the genders, but this probably works best for words you are otherwise mostly familiar with. I found it much easier to remember the gender of words in German/Spanish/French than in Welsh, but it’s also true that gender is much more prevalent (and thus you get a lot more practice associating it to the word) in those languages.
Thanks for spotting the typo (now corrected), Mixi basati. The research I read said that it takes Welsh kids longer to learn the gender than it does for German or French kids, too, simply because the gender is not marked so obviously.
I must actually be reading this all the way through CAREFULLY 😉 – found another typo
Please don’t hate me….
People and animals – grammatical gender follow biological gender, special *****femal ****endings
Not at all, Ruth. Now corrected. Very helpful to have these pointed out. I don’t do as much proofing as I should. Takes hours and hours to write the articles and then the weekend is over… Better done than perfect is what I tell myself.
Sara jones says
This is a great article. I WILL HAVE TO copy it somehow. Worth learning.
Glad you found it useful, Sara. Should print out ok. Pob lwc wrth ddysgu Cymraeg! 🙂
Rosie B. says
Dw i wyth deg dau oed. (Probably got that wrong) But just showing that I am trying to learn this beautiful language – the language of my parents who raised me in England.
I know at this advanced age I will not become a fluent Welsh speaker but I do love it so as it seems to connect me to my roots. Many thanks for the articles. Perhaps one day I will be able to send a comment in Welsh.
Best of wishes to you Gareth bachgen. Rosie B expat now in Aus.
Thanks for your kind comments, Rosie. Great that you’re learning Welsh. I’m sure you can get further than you think if you keep going! Have you tried the SaySomethingInWelsh course online?
Marcus Whitfield says
Nice work, I’m 9 months into learning and I haven’t really given this much attention yet. I started reading through this and took in quite a bit of it but at some point I’ve got to put some work into this.
Glad you found this useful, Marcus. I’d say focus on the key high-level patterns at this stage and keep it all in perspective. Very unlikely that a gender mistake is going to cause a misunderstanding but it’s nice to get more accurate the further on we get. What resources are you using for Welsh and what are you finding the most challenging in the process?
Kevin Henty says
Quite heavy duty for a low-level learner like me, but impressive nevertheless. And a great reference tool.
I probably need to lighten up a bit, Kevin 🙂 Glad you find it useful!
Diolch Gareth! This is written out so clearly – very accessible to a native speaker now trying to catch up on grammar 🙂
Perhaps you could elaborate more about gender-neutral terms. You mention gender nouns and provide examples for gender roles, but for people trying to adapt to gender-neutral terms for nonbinary people, it would be great to see a few examples of that? I’m still a bit lost as to how to speak in a more inclusive way.
Dai Rob says
Fantastic article, diolch!!
I’m 3 yrs into learning, can hold a basic conversation but have always hidden away from from this topic!! I am going to make a copy of this and start getting to grips with it straight away, diolch o galon!!!!!!
Croeso mawr, Dai! I’m looking to do more posts about Welsh here on the site. Any other topics you’d like to see covered?
Thank you so much for sharing all of these resources! I hope the page is still being monitored for comments; I don’t see any dates at all. I’m an American who loves learning about languages generally but I’ve only just taken an interest in Welsh in recent days. I don’t plan to try to master it for my current project but I do want to honor it properly. I was hoping to find here which is the correct way to refer to “Pennod” as it would appear as a heading in a book. Better to say, “Pennod Pedwar” or “Pennod Pedair?” Of all the languages I’ve examined, I must say Welsh is my favorite for numbering conventions. : )
Dr Popkins says
S’mae, John? Diolch am ddarllen. Yes, this post (and all my posts) are still very much being monitored. What attracted you to Welsh? It’s “Pennod Pedwar” (Chapter Four) but y “bedwerydd bennod” (the fourth chapter- classic e.g. of an ordinal number, fem form, soft mutation of fem. noun). As for “Pennod Pedwar” Though I can’t find an explanation in my (quite extensive) collection of Welsh grammar books), I think the explanation must be that Pedwar is not behaving adjectivally here. It’s the name of the chapter.
Thank you for your insight, Dr. Popkins. I investigated the identical question in Welsh, Chinese Mandarin, and Romanian. You get three very different solutions to the same usage situation. Languages, and the people whose ideas they express, are so fascinating to me.
What drew me to Welsh? An idea.
I’m a public historian with some real-world observations about the danger inherent in the deliberate distortion of history I see happening here. I’d like people to see what I see, but if I write a book about American history, too many will pass it up, thinking they know it all already. (They don’t. That’s the point.) So I’m writing a novel instead, in a fictional parallel world. For reasons I’d rather decline to explain, the rich history of fictional language in that world, if carried forward in time to my tale, might closely resemble Welsh, so I’d like to infuse it here and there. It’s not the history of Wales (or America for that matter) or about the language of Wales, but even so I think it will endear people who don’t already know Welsh and make them want to hear more, and please people who do already know it. That’s the hope, anyway.
Dr Popkins says
Sounds a fascinating project, John! I hope it goes well!
Rhys Watkins says
Hi Gareth. Not a learner but a native speaker who’s got very rusty after working in England for too long. I found your piece really helpful as my Welsh grammar lessons pretty much came to and end when I chose A levels but as an ex French teacher I appreciated the strategies for optimising chances for success. I remember we used the ‘Help Llaw’ series in Primary School (1960’s).You’re absolutely right that we picked mutation up from everyday usage far more than from grammar books. I find watching S4C rugby matches good for revision and vocabulary but I often wince at the mangling of mutations by the younger generations there. Same applies to literal translation of idiomatic English. but at least the language survives. I suspect that eventually mutation will disappear though.
Dr Popkins says
Diolch am ddarllen, Rhys! Glad you found the post useful. I also wince at a lot of what I hear, especially ending sentences ending with a preposition not in a personal form. I think part of the problem is that people don’t read enough Welsh and have lost the feel for the spirit of the language, so to speak.