The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 1

“Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi…”

Azulejo 4The Portuguese alphabet or alfabeto consists of 23 letters. It is derived from Latin as is our own English alphabet. You will notice that K, W and Y are missing from Portuguese. This is because these letters only appear in foreign words. Y used to be used (although rarely) during the Renaissance but in 1911 The Portuguese spelling reform displaced the letter Y forever – prefering to signify its sound by the letter ‘i’. “Iate (yacht) is a good example. Well, we aren’t going to learn to sing just yet but we are going to start right at the beginning and learn our Portuguese A-B-C

Like English some letters are pronounced in different ways according to where and how they appear in a word. So for example in English we have the words ‘ever’ and ‘even’. Both start with the letter ‘e’ but this ‘e’ is pronounced differently each time. Whilst I think it is sometimes difficult to reflect on your own native tongue, it seems to me that Portuguese is more structured than English when it comes to pronunciation. There are a set of rules to follow which do need to be learned but you will find that if you listen to Portuguese a lot these rules eventually become absorbed and you will instinctively know how the letters are pronounced. Compared to English, Portuguese is much more ‘say it as you see it’. I imagine for someone trying to learn English they might struggle with words such as ‘though’, and ‘rough’! We have words that may look very similar but their pronunciation is completely different. You can relax with Portuguese because once you’ve learned the rules, you can make a reasonably accurate stab at pronouncing the word you see.

In this article I am going to explore the different ways the letters are pronounced. You will notice the terms ‘stressed’ and ‘unstressed’. We will explore this in the next part of the series.

Note that I am aware that in English there are some regional differences in how we pronounce certain letters so in using the comparisons below I am using standard ‘bbc’ English.

Vowels

A
Stressed: like a in ‘father’ Fado (Fado music)
Unstressed: Like a in ‘ago’. Mesa (table)
E
Stressed: ranges from e in ‘they‘ to e in ‘let’. Sete (seven)
Unstressed: Like ey in ‘prey‘. Bebida (drink)

At the beginning of a word or the conjunction e (and) – like ee in ‘eel’. Edifício (building).
Note – often when e is at the beginning of a word it can seem to disappear. At the end of a word it is not pronounced in European Portuguese.

I
Stressed and unstressed are the same: Like ‘i’ in ‘bin’. Idade (age)

O
Stressed: ranges from o in ‘opera’ to o in ‘sore’. Bolo (cake)
Unstressed: Like oo in ‘book’. Fado (fado music)
Note at the end of a word this letter often almost disappears

U
Stressed and unstressed are the same. Like oo in ‘roof’. Susto (fright)
However it is not pronounced in the following combinations
Gue
Gui
Que
Qui

Consonants

B
Same as in English but perhaps slightly softer. Obrigada (thankyou when said by a female)

C
Soft like c in ‘face’ if it’s followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. Cidade (city)
Hard like c in ‘cup’. Comprar (to buy)

D
Similar to English in European Portuguese though slightly softer. Dormir (to sleep)

F
Same as in English f in ‘face’. Fechado (closed)

G
Soft like s in ‘measure’ before ‘e’ or ‘i’. Gelado (icecream)
Hard like g in ‘garden’ when before ‘o’ ‘u’ or ‘a’. Gato (cat)

H
Never pronounced unless in combinations like ‘ch’ ‘nh’ and ‘lh’
ch is like sh in ‘shoot’. Chuva (rain)
nh is like ni in ‘onion’. Banho (bath)
lh in like ll in million. Mulher (woman)

J
Like s in ‘measure’. Jornal (newspaper)

L
Same as in English. Loja (shop)

M
Same as in English except at the end of a word. Manta (blanket)
At the end of a word m is naselised and sounds a little like the ng in ‘sung‘. Bem (well)

N
Same as in English. Nariz (nose).
Note – When words that end with m are made plural the m changes to an n; for example jovem becomes jovens. The n here is always nasalised.

P
Same as in English. Pato (duck)

Q
Like qu in ‘quick’. This letter is always followed by u. Quando (when)
When ‘qu’ is followed by ‘e’ or ‘i’ the u is not pronounced. Quem (who)

R
Perhaps one of the most difficult letters to get to grips with.
At the beginning of a word or double r the sound is either gutteral or trilled.
Rir Trilled

Rir Guttural

Carro Trilled

Carro Guttural
For the trilled version think of how the Scottish pronounce the letter ‘r’
When I first started learning Portuguese the lesson I learned was that is was definately trilled like in Spanish. Although I can just about make this trilled sound I find it much easier to use the gutteral ‘r’ and listening to a lot of Portuguese radio I find it is in fact quite common.
In the middle or at the end of a word the r is ‘tapped’ where the tongue suddenly stops the sound – see Obrigada above

If you would like to investigate this further the technical terms are as follows
For the trilled sound look up the “alveolar trill”
For the gutteral sound look up “voiced uvular fricative”

The University of Iowa has an excellent page here. Click on Spanish – vibrantes and compare carro and caro to give you a good idea of the difference between a trilled rr sound and a ‘tapped’ ‘r’ sound.

This is one you will need to practice.

To make the gutteral sound you just need to pretend you are gargling water.
To make the trilled sound, loosely curl your tongue up and place the tip on the roof of your mouth. I find it works best if I place my tongue just at that point where the roof starts to curve up behind your teeth (not right behind your teeth!). Now to practice the sound  attempt to blow out the air you have inhaled through this small gap between the roof of your mouth and the tongue. Keep your tongue relaxed. It is hard to do but once you have managed it you will know what it feels like and will be able to repeat it.

S
At the beginning of a word like s in ‘sun’ – Sinto (I feel)
between two vowels or at the end of a word when the next word begins with a vowel like s in ‘pleasure’. Casa (house)
At the end of a word or before a consanant like sh in ‘show’. Livros (books). Estudar (to study)

T
Slightely softer than English. Tudo (everything)

V
Same as in English. Vinho (wine)

X
The one letter that doesn’t seem to have many rules!
Generally if it appears at the beginning of a word is is pronounced like sh in ‘shawl’. Xale (shawl)

Otherwise it can sound like the x in ‘taxi’ or the sh in shawl. Sometimes it doesn’t sound at all.

Z
Same as in English z in ‘zoo’ when at the beginning of a word or in the middle of a word. Dizer (to say)

At the end of a word it is pronounced like s in ‘measure’. Luz (light)

This concludes the first part of this series. I hope you have found it helpful.

Go to Part 2

8 comments for “The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 1

  1. Boo
    November 2, 2008 at 9:13 am

    I should feel lucky cause I’m a native Arabic speaker. I found it very easy to learn the Portuguese alphabet.
    And the letter R wither it’s trilled or gutteral is really easy for me to pronounce cause in Arabic we have the letter ? and the letter ? which are very smiler to the R in the begining of a word or doubled in the Portuguese language.
    Thanks for this lesson.
    It helped me understand soooooo many things.
    I always had trouble with the letter M…I had no idea how they pronounce it but now I can see that it’s like ng…
    so I say tudo beng”tudo bem”.
    It was very helpful.
    Thanks a million you’re the best Lily.
    I’m still learning with you.

  2. Lily
    November 2, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Hi Boo
    Glad it helped. There is definately Arabic influences that came from the Moors.

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