The phonology of Portuguese
can vary considerably between dialects, in extreme cases leading to difficulties in intelligibility. This article focuses on the pronunciations that are generally regarded as standard. Since Portuguese is a pluricentric language
, and differences between European Portuguese
(EP) and Brazilian Portuguese
(BP) can be considerable, both varieties are distinguished whenever necessary.
For finer information on regional accents, see Portuguese dialects, and for historical sound changes see History of Portuguese.
The consonant inventory of Portuguese is fairly conservative. The medieval affricates /ts/, /dz/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/ merged with the fricatives /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, respectively, but not with each other, and there were no other significant changes to the consonant phonemes since then. However, several consonant phonemes have special allophones
boundaries, and a few also undergo allophonic changes at word boundaries. In the following, the phrase "at the end of a syllable" can be understood as "before a consonant, or at the end of a word".
- In most of Brazil and Angola, the consonant hereafter denoted as /ɲ/ may be realized as a nasal palatal approximant [j̃] which nasalizes the vowel that precedes it: [ˈnĩj̃u].
- In a number of Brazilian dialects (such as those of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia), the dental plosives are affricated to [tʃ] and [dʒ] before /i/ and .
- At the end of syllables, the sibilants /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/ occur in complementary distribution. In most of Brazil, they are alveolar: /s/ is used before voiceless consonants or at the end of words, while /z/ is used before voiced consonants: e.g. isto /ˈistu/, turismo /tuˈɾizmu/. In most of Portugal, and in Rio de Janeiro and some northeastern states of Brazil, syllable-final sibilants have become postalveolar, /ʃ/ before a voiceless consonant or at the end of a word, and /ʒ/ before a voiced consonant: isto /ˈiʃtu/, turismo /tuˈɾiʒmu/.
- The consonant hereafter denoted as /ʁ/ has a variety of realizations depending on dialect. In Brazil, this sound can be velar, uvular, or glottal and may be voiceless unless between voiced sounds though it is usually pronounced as a voiceless velar fricative [x], a voiceless glottal fricative [h] or voiceless uvular fricative [χ]. In Europe, its most frequent realizations are the voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] and the alveolar trill [r]. See also Guttural R in Portuguese.
- The two rhotic phonemes /ʁ/ and /ɾ/ contrast only between vowels. At the beginning of words and after , only the former occurs, while elsewhere most dialects use the latter. However, several Brazilian dialects, including the dialect of Rio de Janeiro, use the former at the end of syllables.
- The consonant /l/ is velarized in European dialects. In most Brazilian dialects, /l/ is vocalized to [ʊ̯] at the end of syllables. In casual BP, unstressed il can be realized as as [ju], as in fácil [ˈfasju] ('easy').
- Nasal consonants do not normally occur at the end of syllables. Syllable-final /n/ may be present in rare learned words for some speakers. Word-initial /ɲ/ occurs in very few loanwords.
- In northern and central Portugal, the voiced plosives /b/, /d/, /g/ may be lenited to fricatives [β], [ð], and [ɣ] respectively, except at the beginning of words, or after nasal vowels.
- In European pronunciations, the postalveolar fricatives are only weakly fricated in the syllable coda.
1 Spelled with a silent c in the European orthography, and without it in the Brazilian orthography.
2 Spelled with a silent c in the European orthography, but in the Brazilian orthography this c is not silent.
|| 'I kill' |
|| 'duck' (m) |
|| 'I strike' |
|| 'innate' (m) |
|| 'tact' |
|| 'Tita' (Brazilian) |
|| 'I date' |
|| 'said (fem.)' (Brazilian) |
|| 'sack' |
|| 'Buddhist high priest' |
|| 'pyre' |
|| 'rooster' |
|| 'pine cone' |
|| 'flat' (m) |
|| 'jet' |
|| 'branch' |
|| [ˈkatu] or [ˈkaktu]
|| 'cactus' |
|| 'cat' (m) |
|| 'mouse' (m) |
Portuguese has one of the richest vowel phonologies of all Romance languages, with seven (in Brazil) to nine (in Portugal) oral vowels, five nasal vowels, ten oral diphthongs, and five nasal diphthongs. The high vowels and the low vowels are four separate phonemes, unlike in Spanish, and the contrast between them is used for vowel alternation. European Portuguese has also two near central vowels, one of which tends to be elided like the e caduc of French.
Like standard Catalan, Portuguese uses vowel height to contrast stressed syllables with unstressed syllables; the vowels tend to be raised to (although [ɨ] occurs only in EP) when they are unstressed. The dialects of Portugal are characterized by reducing vowels to a greater extent than others. Falling diphthongs are composed of a vowel followed by one of the high vowels /i/ or /u/; although rising diphthongs occur in the language as well, they can be interpreted as hiatuses.
The exact realization of the /ɐ/ varies somewhat amongst dialects. In Portugal, it is pronounced higher than in Brazil, approaching the mid central unrounded vowel [ə] (see charts to the left).
In Brazil, [a] and [ɐ] occur in complementary distribution: [ɐ] occurs in final unstressed syllables and in stressed syllables before one of the nasal consonants /m/, /n/, or /ɲ/ followed by another vowel, and [a] elsewhere. In European Portuguese, the general situation is similar (with [ɐ] being more prevalent in unstressed syllables), except that for some regions there are minimal pairs for the two vowels. Many are composed of a stressed word and an unstressed clitic, such as dá "he gives" and da "of the". Others are verb forms of the first conjugation such as pensamos "we think" and pensámos "we thought" (pensamos in Brazil).
Close-mid vowels and open-mid vowels (and ) contrast only when they are stressed. In unstressed syllables, they occur in complementary distribution. In Brazilian Portuguese, they are raised to a high vowel ([i] and [u] respectively) after a stressed syllable.
European Portuguese possess a Near-close near-back unrounded vowel. It occurs in unstressed syllables such as in pegar [pɯˈgaɾ] ('to grip'). There is no standard symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet for this sound. The IPA Handbook transcribes it as /ɯ̽/, but in Portuguese studies /ɨ/ or /ə/ are traditionally used. There are very few minimal pairs with (except for monosyllabic clitics) and in relaxed pronunciation, it is often elided.
Diphthongs are not considered independent phonemes in Portuguese, but knowing them can help with spelling and pronunciation. Only falling diphthongs
are listed below. Although rising diphthongs are frequent in the language as well, especially those composed of semivowel allophone of /i/ or /u/ followed by another vowel, they can be analysed as hiatuses
||Notes and variants |
|| ai, ái
|| Allophone [ɐi] in central and southern Portugal, when unstressed before another vowel. In BP, it may be realized as [a] in unstressed syllables. |
|| ei, êi
|| "you beat"
|| There are very few minimal pairs for /ei/ and /ɛi/, all of which in oxytone words. Both diphthongs are replaced with [ɐi] in central Portugal. In BP, they may be realized as [e] in unstressed syllables.
|| "boats" |
|| "you are"
|| There are very few minimal pairs for /oi/ and /ɔi/, all of which in oxytone words.
|| "suns" |
|| "I went"
|| Usually stressed. |
|| au, áu
|| Allophone [ɐu] in Portugal, found, for instance, in the contractions ao and aos, but otherwise rare. |
|| eu, êu
||There are very few minimal pairs for /eu/ and /ɛu/, all of which in oxytone words.
|| "sky" |
|| "he saw"
|| Usually stressed. |
|| Merges with /o/ for many speakers. In BP, realized as [o] in unstressed syllables. |
The characteristic pronunciation of /l/ as [u̯] at the end of syllables in Brazilian Portuguese has created new diphthongs: (polvo, "octopus"), (sol, "sun"), (sul, "south"), although this semivowel [u̯] is best analysed as an allophone of the consonant /l/.
Portuguese also has a series of nasalized vowels. analyzes European Portuguese with five monophthongs and four diphthongs, all phonemic: . Nasal diphthongs occur mostly at the end of words (or followed by a final sibilant), and in a few compounds. Brazilian Portuguese is considerably more nasal than European Portuguese possibly due to the influence of other languages, such as Tupi.
analyze the nasalized monophthongs of Brazilian Portuguese as phonetically nasalized before an archiphoneme /N/ or a heterosyllabic nasal consonant. Nasalized diphthongs in Brazilian Portuguese, are formed by combining [ẽ], [ɐ̃], [õ], or [ũ] with the offglide [ɪ̯̃] (except with/ɐ̃ʊ̃/).
|| Gloss |
|| 'belt' |
|| 'I sit' |
|| 'saint' |
|| 'I probe' |
|| 'summed up' |
The nasal diphthong [ũĩ] is found only in the six words ruim (in some dialects, though this pronunciation is nonstandard), muito, muita, muitos, muitas, and mui.
The stressed low vowels
contrast with the stressed high vowels
in several kinds of grammatically meaningful alternation
- Between the base form of a noun or adjective and its inflected forms: ovo /o/ "egg", ovos /ɔ/ "eggs"; novo /o/, nova /ɔ/, novos /ɔ/, novas /ɔ/ "new" (masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine plural, feminine plural);
- Between some nouns or adjectives and related verb forms: adj. seco /e/ "dry", v. seco /ɛ/ "I dry"; n. gosto /o/ "taste", v. gosto /ɔ/ "I like";
- In regular verbs, the stressed vowel is normally low , but high before the nasal consonants /m/, /n/, /ɲ/ (the high vowels are also nasalized, in BP);
- Some stem-changing verbs alternate stressed high vowels with stressed low vowels in the present tense, according to a regular pattern: cedo, cedes, cede, cedem /e-ɛ-ɛ-ɛ/; movo, moves, move, movem /o-ɔ-ɔ-ɔ/ (present indicative); ceda, cedas, ceda, cedam /e/; mova, movas, mova, movam /o/ (present subjunctive). (There is another class of stem-changing verbs which alternate with according to the same scheme);
- In central Portugal, the 1st. person plural of verbs of the 1st. conjugation (with infinitives in -ar) has the stressed vowel /ɐ/ in the present indicative, but /a/ in the preterite, cf. pensamos "we think" with pensámos "we thought". In BP, the stressed vowel is /ɐ̃/ in both, so they are written without accent mark.
There are also pairs of unrelated words that differ in the height of these vowels, such as besta /e/ "beast" and besta /ɛ/ "crossbow", or este /e/ "this one" and este /ɛ/ "east". Since most polysyllabic homographs of this sort can be distinguished from context, the orthography does not differentiate them.
In EP, there are several minimal pairs in which a clitic containing the vowel /ɐ/ contrasts with a monosyllabic stressed word containing /a/: da vs. dá, mas vs. más, a vs. à /a/, etc. In BP, however, these words are all pronounced with /a/.
Some isolated vowels (meaning, those that are neither nasal, nor part of a diphthong) tend to change quality when they become unstressed
in a fairly predictable way. In the examples below, the stressed syllable of each word is in boldface. The term "final" should be interpreted here as "at the end of a word, or before word final -s
|| Unstressed but not final
|| Unstressed and final
|| /a/ or /ɐ/
pensar|| /a/ (BP)
| /ɐ/ (EP) |
||/e/ or /ɛ/
|| pega /ɛ/
mover /e/|| /e/ (BP)
|| /i/ (BP)
| /ɨ/ (EP)
|| /ɨ/ (EP) |
||/o/ or /ɔ/
|| mimosa /ɔ/
|| /o/ (BP)
| /u/ (EP) |
With a few exceptions mentioned in the previous sections, the vowels /a/ and /ɐ/ occur in complementary distribution when stressed, the latter before nasal consonants followed by a vowel, and the former elsewhere.
In Brazilian Portuguese, the general pattern is that the stressed vowels , , neutralize to /a/, /e/, /o/, respectively, in unstressed syllables, as is common in Romance languages. In final unstressed syllables, however, they are raised to /ɐ/, /i/, /u/. In casual BP, , may be raised to /i/, /u/ on any unstressed syllable.
European Portuguese has taken this process one step further, raising , , to /ɐ/, /ɨ/, /u/ in all unstressed syllables. The vowels /ɐ/ and /ɨ/ are also more centralized than their Brazilian counterparts. The three unstressed vowels are reduced and often voiceless, and in some cases elided in fast speech.
There are some exceptions to the rules above. For example, /i/ occurs instead of unstressed /e/ or /ɨ/, before another vowel in hiatus (teatro, reúne, peão). Also, /a/, /ɛ/ or /ɔ/ appear in some unstressed syllables, in EP. And there is some dialectal variation in the unstressed sounds: the northern accents of BP have low vowels in unstressed syllables, , instead of the high vowels . However, the Brazilian media tend to prefer the southern pronunciation. In any event, the general paradigm is a useful guide for pronunciation and spelling.
Nasal vowels, vowels that belong to falling diphthongs, and the high vowels /i/ and /u/, are not affected by this process, nor is the vowel /o/ when written as the digraph ou.
In BP, an epenthetic vowel
[i] is sometimes inserted between consonants, to break up consonant clusters that are not native to Portuguese, in learned words
. For example, psicologia
"psychology" may be pronounced (the letter p
is not silent, as it is in English), and adverso
"adverse" may be pronounced . In northern Portugal, an epenthetic [ɨ] may be used instead, , , but in southern Portugal there is often no epenthesis, , .
Further notes on the oral vowels
- Some words with in EP have in BP. This happens when those vowels are stressed before the nasal consonants /m/, /n/, followed by another vowel, in which case both types of vowel may occur in European Portuguese, but Brazilian Portuguese only allows high vowels. This can affect spelling: cf. EP tónico, BP tônico "tonic".
- In BP, stressed vowels have nasal allophones, [ɐ̃], [ẽ], etc. (see below) before one of the nasal consonants /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, followed by another vowel. In EP, nasalization is nearly absent in this environment.
- Some BP speakers also diphthongize stressed vowels to [ai̯], [ɛi̯], [ei̯], etc. (except /i/), before a sibilant at the end of a syllable (written s, x, or z). For instance, Jesus [ʒeˈzui̯s] "Jesus", faz [fai̯s] "he does", dez [dɛi̯s] "ten". This has led to the use of meia (meaning "meia dúzia", or "half a dozen") for seis [sei̯s] "six" when making enumerations, to avoid any confusion with três [tɾei̯s] "three" on the telephone.
- In Lisbon and surrounding areas, stressed /e/ is pronounced as [ɐ] or [ɐi] when it comes before a palatal consonant /ʎ/, /ɲ/ or a palato-alveolar /ʃ/, /ʒ/, followed by another vowel.
When two words belonging to the same phrase are pronounced together, or two morphemes
are joined in a word, the last sound in the first may be affected by the first sound of the next (sandhi
), either coalescing with it, or becoming shorter (a semivowel), or being deleted. This affects especially the sibilant consonants /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, and the unstressed final vowels /ɐ/, , /u/.
As was mentioned above, the dialects of Portuguese can be divided into two groups, according to whether syllable-final sibilants are pronounced as alveolar /s/, /z/, or as postalveolar consonants /ʃ/, /ʒ/. At the end of words, the default pronunciation for a sibilant is voiceless, , but in connected speech the sibilant is treated as though it were within a word (assimilation
- If the next word begins with a voiceless consonant, the final sibilant remains voiceless ; bons tempos or "good times".
- If the next word begins with a voiced consonant, the final sibilant becomes voiced as well ; bons dias or "good day".
- If the next word begins with a vowel, the final sibilant is treated as intervocalic, and pronounced /z/; bons amigos or "good friends".
When two identical sibilants appear in sequence within a word, they reduce to a single consonant. For example, nascer, desço, excesso, exsudar are pronounced with [s] by speakers who use alveolar sibilants at the end of syllables, and disjuntor is pronounced with [ʒ] by speakers who use postalveolars. But if the two sibilants are different they are pronounced separately. Thus, the former speakers will pronounce the last example with [zʒ], and the latter speakers will pronounce the first examples with [ʃs] (although in relaxed pronunciation the first sibilant in each pair may be dropped). This applies also to words that are pronounced together in connected speech:
- sibilant + /s/, e.g. as sopas: either [s] or [ʃs];
- sibilant + /z/, e.g. as zonas: either [z] or [ʒz];
- sibilant + /ʃ/, e.g. as chaves: either [sʃ] or [ʃ];
- sibilant + /ʒ/, e.g. os genes: either [zʒ] or [ʒ].
Normally, only the three vowels /ɐ/, /i/ (in BP) or /ɨ/ (in EP), and /u/ occur in unstressed
final position. If the next word begins with a similar vowel, they merge with it in connected speech, producing a single vowel, possibly long
). Here, "similar" means that nasalization can be disregarded, and that the two central vowels can be identified with each other. Thus,
- + → [a(ː)]; toda a noite or "all night", nessa altura or "at that point".
- + /ɐ̃/ → [ã(ː)] (note that this low nasal vowel appears only in this situation); a antiga "the ancient one" and à antiga "in the ancient way", both pronounced [ã(ː)ˈtʃigɐ] or [ã(ː)ˈtigɐ].
- /i/ + → ; de idade [dʒi(ː)ˈdadʒi] or [di(ː)ˈdadɨ] "aged".
- /ɨ/ + /ɨ/ → [ɨ]; fila de espera "waiting line" (EP only).
- /u/ + → ; todo o dia or "all day".
If the next word begins with a dissimilar vowel, then /i/ and /u/ become approximants in Brazilian Portuguese (synaeresis):
- /i/ + V → [jV]; durante o curso "during the course", mais que um "more than one".
- /u/ + V → [wV]; todo este tempo "all this time" do objeto "of the object".
In careful speech and in with certain function words, or in some phrase stress conditions (see Mateus and d'Andrade, for details), European Portuguese has a similar process:
- /ɨ/ + V → [jV]; se a vires "if you see her", mais que um "more than one".
- /u/ + V → [wV]; todo este tempo "all this time", do objecto "of the object".
But in other prosodic conditions, and in relaxed pronunciation, EP simply drops final unstressed /ɨ/ and /u/ (elision):
- /ɨ/ + V → [V]; durante o curso "during the course", este inquilino "this tenant".
- /u/ + V → [V]; todo este tempo "all this time", disto há muito "there's a lot of this".
Unlike French, for example, Portuguese does not indicate most of these sound changes explicitly in its orthography.
may fall on any of the three final syllables of a word, but mostly on the last two. There is a partial correlation between the position of the stress and the final vowel; for example, the final syllable is usually stressed when it contains a nasal phoneme, a diphthong, or a close vowel
. The orthography of Portuguese takes advantage of this correlation to minimize the number of diacritics.
Because of the phonetic changes that often affect unstressed vowels, pure lexical stress is less common in Portuguese than in related languages, but there is still a significant number of examples of it:
- dúvida /ˈduvidɐ/ "doubt" (noun) vs. duvida /duˈvidɐ/ "he doubts"
- falaram /faˈlaɾɐ̃ũ/ "they spoke" vs. falarão /falaˈɾɐ̃ũ/ "they will speak" (Brazilian pronunciation)
- ouve /ˈovi/ "he hears" vs. ouvi /oˈvi/ "I heard" (Brazilian pronunciation)
- túnel /ˈtunɛl/ "tunnel" vs. tonel /tuˈnɛl/ "wine cask" (European pronunciation)
is not lexically significant in Portuguese, but phrase- and sentence-level tone are important. There are of six dynamic tone patterns that affect entire phrases
, which indicate the mood and intention of the speaker such as implication, emphasis, reservation, etc. As in most Romance languages, interrogation is expressed mainly by sharply raising the tone at the end of the sentence.
- Vázquez Cuesta, Mendes da Luz, (1987) Gramática portuguesa, 3rd. ed. ISBN 84-249-1117-2