The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 2

Azulejo 5Welcome to part 2 of this series. I recommend you read Part 1 first to aquaint yourself with the basic introduction to the Portuguese alphabet and how to pronounce the vowels and the consonants. As that was a very long article, I thought I would break the rest of this series into more bite-size chunks for you.

In this entry we going to look at stress. No, not the kind of stress that comes from trying to go shopping with a screaming three year old! I’m talking about the kind of stress we use when saying a word, a phrase or a sentence.

To do this, we firstly have to take a look at syllables.

Like English, Portuguese words are made up of syllables. In Merriam Webster’s dictionary the word ‘syllable’ is described as having its root in a Greek word meaning ‘to gather together’. Syllables make up the smallest section of uninterrupted sound in a word. When we ‘gather together’ these sounds they create a word. The smallest amount of syllables any word can have is one.

To get the idea lets have a look at some English words. Say them out loud and try and hear the amount of sounds in the word.

One syllable words

Two syllable words
Pretty  Pre-tty
Passion Pas-sion
Lisbon – Lis-bon

Three syllable words
Portugal – Por-tu-gal
Petticoat – pett-i-coat
Remember – Re-mem-ber

Four syllable words
Memorable – Mem-o-ra-ble
Significant – Sig-ni-fi-cant

Fourteen syllable words


Okay so the last example is a little silly but you’re getting the idea I hope. If nothing else, it shows the sense of rhythm that a syllable brings to a word. I defy you to read that last word without the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews flying through your head followed by a raptuous “Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay”!

Anyway – getting back to the point…

If you would like to explore syllables a bit more the BBC has a nice little game here

So now you have a good understanding of what syllables are, let’s talk about stress.

In English we tend to stress the first syllable of a word unless it has a prefix. Think of ‘reason’, trying, listen, colour, harmony. You can hear the stress on the first syllable; it is said with more force than the rest of the word. Notice as well, how your intonation will change when you say these words out loud. Whilst accents can vary, most people will say these stressed syllables at a slightly higher pitch than the rest of the word. If you look at the word ‘disharmony’ however the stress falls on the second syllable dis-HAR-mo-ny as this word has a prefix ‘dis’. Whilst there are some generalisations, our rules for stress seem to be a lot more loosely based than Portuguese. For example, I just randomly opened my dictionary and saw the words ‘person’ and ‘perverse‘. Both have two syllables but one stresses the first syllable and one stresses the second. Why? Who knows! As a native speaker I instinctively know where the stress is supposed to fall but there must have been a time in my life when I didn’t know either of these words and had to learn the difference in pronunciation as well as meaning.

You’ll be thankful to hear that Portuguese is a lot more strict when it comes to stress and therefore it makes it a lot easier to learn.

Basically the rules are as follows

The last but one syllable is stressed – for example

Manteiga (butter) Man- TEI-ga
Cansado (tired) can-SA-do

The exceptions are :-
1) When there is an accented letter in the word.

Alfândega (customs)

2) When the word ends with l, r, z or i then the last syllable is stressed

Abril (April)
Professor (teacher)
Aqui (here)

3) When the word ends with a diphthong or nasal sound.

Coracão (heart)

Now that wasn’t too stressful was it?

In the next part of this series I will take a look at the different types of accents in Portuguese – you’ll have seen them written like this :-


I’ll also explore diphthongs and nasal sounds.

11 comments for “The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 2

  1. antonois
    November 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    i like to learn the langues,please write back and tell me how to start

  2. Lily
    November 19, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks for your comment.
    I would suggest starting with a short beginners course on cd/dvd so that you can hear the language being spoken as well as see it. It’s surprising how much you can learn from these.
    Have a look at
    that’s a free mini course online. You can also get another full free course at this next page – you’ll see a lot of people selling this course for a lot of money but you don’t have to pay for it!

    After you’ve had a look at these then get yourself a good grammar book and start reading.
    If you want to learn Brazilian Portuguese is a good site to visit.

    Good Luck – or as they say in Portuguese – Boa Sorte!

  3. Mike
    January 29, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I hadn’t erally looked closely at this part of the site before but it looks good. I downloaded the mp3 files for the numbers and planets but I couuldn’t play or download the pronunciation files as they couldn’t be found. Is the link now broken? They were very clear, just what I need.

  4. Lily
    February 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Hi Mike – thanks for spotting this! Yes, the links were broken from when I changed the URL on my main site – oops. Going through correcting them now. The ones in this article above have now been done.

  5. Mike
    July 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Lily, first of all I love the new website. It runs much faster even on my antique computer. On the language side I thought I would try some ‘real’ Portuguese to help me with pronunciation. Found a book of Pessoa’s Poems at Amazon. It’s pretty good in that it has the Portuguese and the English versions on facing pages. It’s good to try a line or two then see how close (if at all) I came to the meaning. Very enjoyable. I also get a little practice at my local Portuguese Cafe. They humour me and will, at least, exchange greetings in Portuguese. They also gave me a directory of Portuguese shops and restaurants etc. Next I plan to explore certain establishments on the Portobello Road.
    Até logo

    • Lily
      July 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      Hi Mike – love Pessoa’s poetry! It’s a great idea to get bilingual books. You can try this with novels as well. Get one version in English and one in Portuguese. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to understand. Have fun exploring Portobello Road – I must come down to London one day and check out the Portuguese areas -)

  6. Mike
    July 11, 2011 at 7:02 am

    I hadn’t thought of novels. Is there a particular author you would recommend? Yes you should check out London. A lot to discover I think. Only the other week a visitor to our office noticed the Portuguese flag on my computer desktop. Turned out she is from Oporto and knew of a wonderful Portuguese run cafe very near to where I work. It just gets better! Adeus

  7. Lily
    July 11, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Mike
    Re: novels, I would just pick a novel you really enjoy in English and then see if it’s printed in Portuguese (check Fnac). Personally I love Steven King novels so I’m starting there.

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