Welsh, like most European languages, assigns nouns a gender. Some of these are obvious: a man (dyn) is masculine. A woman (menyw or dynes) is feminine. A cat (cath) is feminine. A dog (ci) is masculine. Well, that makes sense to me, at least.
But what's a table? Or a bed? Or love?
And how do we differentiate between them? And how do we learn the gender of a new object?
Well, in other European languages you can tell whether a noun is masculine or feminine by the article in front of it. In French, we have the indefinite articles "un" and "une" and the definite articles "le" and "la". When you learn a new word you also learn the gender. While on holiday in Paris in 2003 I asked "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" while holder up a token to use the toilet in a bar, and I got the answer "un jeton". Un. Masculine. And I've never forgotten that a token, in French, is masculine: "un jeton".
So what about Welsh? Welsh doesn't have an indefinite article at all. There is no way of saying "a table" or "an apple", it's just "bwrdd" and "afal". There IS a definite article ("the table" or "the apple") and it has three forms:
Y for words following and preceding a consonant
Yr for words preceding a vowel, but following a consonant
'r for words following a vowel (regardless of what follows it)
Sadly, none of these differentiate by gender, so it's almost impossible when learning a new word as part of conversation or when reading to tell whether it's masculine or feminine. And it's this that is, so far, the most frustrating thing about learning Welsh. I find myself looking up words that I already know just to determine their gender. While writing this I had to check to see if "coffi" (coffee) is feminine (it isn't).
So, does that matter? Well, yes! Welsh also has no gender-neutral word for "it". When talking about an object you refer to it as either he or she depending on its gender. When talking about the weather, for example, you refer to "she". "Mae hi'n oer" is "it's cold", only it's really "she's cold". And not only that, but certain words mutate in certain ways depending on context and gender. Would a Welsh person understand you if you were to get a gender wrong? Yes, of course. But it would grate. It wouldn't sound right. And if I'm going to learn a language, I'm going to do it right.