The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 3

Azulejo 6Welcome to the last part of The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation series. Let’s just recap on what we’ve explored so far : -In Part 1 we looked at which letters are included in the Portuguese alphabet, how you say them and how the letters are pronounced. In Part 2 we looked at where the stress falls in a word. In part 3 we are going to take a look at accented letters, nasal sounds and diphthongs.

Accented Letters
There are five accents (diacritical marks is the posh term for them) used in European Portuguese.

  • Grave À
    Acute Á
    Circumflex Â
    Cedilla Ç
    Tilde Ã

The word ‘diacritic’ comes from the Greek ‘to distinguish’. The purpose of these marks is most often to distinguish between words that look very similar. Giving a letter an accent changes the pronunciation of the letter within the word and sometimes the word itself. When the acute and circumflex or tilde accents are present in a word, they indicate where the stress should fall. So with a word such as alfândega (customs) the stress fall on the accented â rather than the last but one syllable as is the norm.

Al-FÂN-dega not al-fân-DE-ga.

The Grave
So let’s take a look at the accents. I’ll start with the grave first as this isn’t used to denote a change in sound. The grave is there to signify that a contraction has occured between two words (usually a+a or a+as). A contraction means that the two words have been fused together to form a single word. It’s similar to using words like ‘it’s‘ instead of ‘it is‘ in English. In Portuguese the preposition ‘a’ would sound very clunky sitting beside the definate article ‘a’ so the two are pulled together into one and the grave shows us that this is the case.

The grave is pronounced like a in ‘ago’.

The Acute
Moving onto the accute which is the most popular of all the accents, you’ll see this written over the vowels. When this occurs the vowel sound changes to ‘open’ when it’s A, E or O.

Á is pronounced most often like the a in ‘cat’ and sometimes like the a in ‘father’. You will need to listen out for the variations

É is pronounced like the e in ‘let’

Ó is pronounced like the o in ‘hot’

Here are some example, remember the stress falls on the accent
átlas (atlas), ténis (tennis), óculos (glasses)

The Circumflex
This diacritic closes the sound of the vowels a, e and o

 is pronounced like a in ‘cat’
Ê is pronounced almost like ey in ‘they‘ but maybe with a little of ai in ‘air’. Listen closely.
Ô like o in ‘sore’

câmara (camera), mês (month), avô(grandfather)

The Cedilla
The cedilla is only present on the letter c. Its purpose is to indicate that the c is pronounced softly like c in ‘lace’

Abraço (hug)

The Tilde
This diacritic indicates a sound is nasalised. When native English speakers first start to learn Portuguese they may find this difficult. However, just remember that we have a lot of nasalised words in English too like boing, bong, sung, bring. Try saying them slowly out loud and feel how these words resonante through your nose when you say them. Use the explanations below as a guide and try to accentuate the nasal quality of the words.

ÃE is pronounced like ain in ‘main’ but the n is not sounded. Mãe (mother)

ÃO is pronounced like the ow in ‘cow’ but more nasalised Coracão (heart)

ÃE is pronounced like oing in ‘boing’ but lose the final g sound and emphasise the nasal quality. Põe (he/she puts)

The last three examples above are also diphthongs. A dipthong is a combination of two letters within the same syllable. When pronounced we naturally slide from one letter to the next but both are pronounced. An English example is cow or pain. In ‘pain’ you can definitely hear each sound of the a and the i even though it has only one syllable.

Here are the rest of the Portuguese diphthongs

ai is pronounced like ie in ‘pie‘. Debaixo de (under)

ao is pronounced like ow in ‘cow‘. Mau (bad)

au is pronounced like ow in ‘cow‘ (yes the same as ao)

oi is pronounced like oy in ‘boy‘. Oito (eight)

ou is pronounced like ou in ‘though’. Sou (I am)

ei is pronounced like ay in ‘hay. Cadeira (Chair)
The best way to learn how Portuguese is pronounced is to listen to it. Whilst comparisons to English are useful, nothing beats listening to the real thing to hear the general nuances of speech. There are lots of Portuguese radio stations online; listen whilst you’re making dinner or having a bath. The sounds will soon become very familiar to you and you’ll find them easier to copy.

Well I hope you have enjoyed this series on the Portuguese alphabet and found it useful for learning. Do feel free to comment on or question anything you see here.

Now, if you think Portuguese is hard, take a look at this cheeky poem attributed to T. S. Watt about the English language. It made me smile.

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you, on hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
to learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, dont call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five!

2 comments for “The Portuguese Alphabet and Pronunciation – Part 3

  1. Boo
    November 4, 2008 at 10:37 am

    That was a great lesson thanks.
    but so I can understand the grave accent even more.
    can I have an example?

  2. Sofia
    August 14, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Hi Boo and L.

    The only words with a grave accent are “à”, “àquele”, “àquela”, “àqueles” and “àquelas”.
    The pronounciation of “à” in these words is the same of “á” (acute accent).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *