It’s time to take a deep dive into the pronunciation of vowels in European Portuguese! First we’ll invite you to play around with this interactive guide and then we’ll cover all the factors that go into creating the variety of subtle variations between each vowel sound.
Pronunciation of Vowels in European Portuguese
Explore the guide below to get to know Portuguese vowels a little bit better. You can mouseover Rui’s lovely face in the interactive diagram to listen to and practice all these vowel sounds! For the best possible experience, use a computer running the Chrome browser.
I Can’t Hear the Difference!
Hearing and producing the distinctions between each sound takes time and practice, so don’t worry about mastering all of these right away. We are primed to hear the distinctions between sounds in our native language(s), but the sounds of a new language will not come as naturally. This is because our brain keeps trying to match each sound to one that we already know!
It’s okay to start with what you know, which is why we included an English approximation for each Portuguese vowel sound. That way you have a more familiar example to get you started. As you progress in your learning, however, you’ll probably want to fine-tune your pronunciation. You don’t have to understand all this from the get-go, but familiarizing yourself with the concepts we use to talk about speech sounds can help you “open” your ears to more subtle differences over time.
So what exactly IS a vowel?
A vowel is simply one of the letters that represents a vowel sound, such as a, e, i, o, and u. Each of these letters corresponds to multiple different vowel sounds, depending on a variety of factors. For example, notice how the o in the stressed syllable is pronounced differently than the o in the unstressed syllable in this word:
bolo Play slow audio Play normal audio cake
Furthermore, notice how the a is pronounced differently when different accent marks are added:
a Play slow audio Play normal audio the
há Play slow audio Play normal audio there is
fã Play normal audio fan, enthusiast
Vowel sounds are produced by moving air through your mouth (and sometimes also your nose!) while modifying the air flow with your lips, tongue, and jaw position. Here are a few terms we sometimes use to talk about vowel sounds:
- Height / openness / vertical position of the tongue: open (low) vs. medium vs. closed (high);
- Frontness / backness / horizontal position of the tongue: front vs. mid vs. back;
- Roundness: rounded vs. unrounded;
- Nasality: oral vs. nasal;
- Stress: reduced vowels, stressed vs. unstressed.
Now that we’ve had an overview, let’s get into the details!
Factors that Affect Vowel Pronunciation
Open (low) or closed (high)? The vertical position of the tongue indicates the openness or height of a vowel. With open vowels, the tongue is lower, i.e. more flat against the bottom of your mouth, creating less obstruction of air flow. In contrast, with closed vowels your tongue is higher in the mouth, essentially closing off some of the air flow and thus creating a different resonance.
The sounds along the bottom of the chart are more open and as you move to the top of the chart, they become more closed. When comparing European and Brazilian Portuguese, you may notice that European Portuguese tends to sound more closed.
Accents can also give you clues about the openness of a vowel. The ˆ accent denotes a closed vowel, while a ´accent denotes an open vowel. We can hear the distinction using minimal pairs like this one:
avô Play slow audio Play normal audio grandfather
avó Play slow audio Play normal audio grandmother
Front, mid, or back? Front vowels are produced with the tip of your tongue engaged near the front of your mouth, around your hard palate. Back vowels are produced with the back of your tongue pulled back and up toward your soft palate.
Try repeating just the vowel sounds as you move from left to right in the chart. Notice how your tongue moves from the front to the back of the mouth.
Your lips affect the “roundness” of a vowel. They can form a circle, stay relaxed, or be spread to affect the resonance of the sound. Notice there is more rounding as you move from left to right in the chart.
The vowels we’ve discussed so far have been oral vowels because the air is directed through the mouth, but Portuguese also has nasal vowels that are produced when some of the air also travels through the nose. This is what distinguishes the oral vowel in the word mau Play slow audio Play normal audio bad from the nasal vowel in the word mão Play slow audio Play normal audio hand.
You can usually tell a vowel is nasal by the ~ (tilde) accent mark, but unmarked vowels followed by the consonants n or m also usually have nasal sounds. For example: pensa Play normal audio think, bom Play slow audio Play normal audio good, campo Play normal audio field. The exception would be if the n or m is followed by another vowel, the vowel remains oral, as in amar Play slow audio Play normal audio to love or cama Play slow audio Play normal audio bed.
Usually, the second to last, i.e. penultimate syllable, gets the stress. For example:
Maria Play normal audio Maria
biblioteca Play slow audio Play normal audio library
melancia Play normal audio watermelon
If you see an accent mark, however, this overrides the default rule, and the stress will be on the accented syllable instead:
gíria Play slow audio Play normal audio slang
distância Play normal audio distance
coração Play normal audio heart
The stress is on the last syllable if the word ends in:
- i, l, r, z, um, uns, im, ins OR a diphthong (two vowels merged into one syllable) such as: ai, ao, au, ou, oi, ei, ui, ão, ãe, õe
alguns Play slow audio Play normal audio some, a few (masc.)
Câmara Municipal Play slow audio Play normal audio City Hall
Eu bebi um copo de água Play slow audio Play normal audio I drank a glass of water
Ele falou muito alto Play slow audio Play normal audio He spoke very loudly
It’s also worth noting that unstressed vowels are almost always closed.
This is what people are referring to when they say that European Portuguese speakers like to “eat” or “swallow” their vowels! Reduced vowels are basically vowels that are unstressed to the point that they are barely pronounced or even dropped entirely.
For example, the sounds for o and e are typically reduced in unstressed syllables at the end of a word. Listen to how the final o‘s and e‘s in ralado, isso, disse, etc. are pronounced in these sentences:
E eu ralado com isso Play slow audio Play normal audio I couldn't care less (idiom)
Foi aquele tipo que me disse isso. Play slow audio Play normal audio It was that guy (slang) who told me that
This is because European Portuguese is a stress-timed language, which means that the stressed syllables are pronounced very strongly and the unstressed syllables are shortened. In other words, more time is given to the stressed syllables.
Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, displays both stress-timed and syllable-timed properties, depending on the dialect, rate of speech, length of a phrase, and other contextual factors. In general, however, it tends to be more syllable-timed compared to European Portuguese. To see what we mean, compare this phrase in European Portuguese vs Brazilian Portuguese:
- Ele foi jantar fora Play normal audio He went out for dinner vs. Ele foi jantar fora (BP) Play normal audio He went out for dinner
Letter by Letter
Now that we’ve explored some of these different factors, let’s take a look at some of the different vowel sounds associated with each written letter.
A: casa Play slow audio Play normal audio house casa Play slow audio Play normal audio house má Play normal audio bad fã Play normal audio fan lâmina Play normal audio blade
E: se Play slow audio Play normal audio if energia Play normal audio energy sê Play slow audio Play normal audio be(imperative) sé Play slow audio Play normal audio cathedral
I: obrigada Play slow audio Play normal audio thank you (fem.) família Play normal audio family
O: falo Play slow audio Play normal audio I speak estômago Play normal audio stomach só Play slow audio Play normal audio only, just
U: tu Play slow audio Play normal audio you
Diphthongs: mau Play slow audio Play normal audio bad mão Play slow audio Play normal audio hand pai Play slow audio Play normal audio father mãe Play slow audio Play normal audio mother rei Play slow audio Play normal audio king feijões Play slow audio Play normal audio beans estou Play slow audio Play normal audio I am
The best way to get comfortable with pronunciation is to spend plenty of time listening to native speakers rather than trying to memorize every single rule. That said, we’ll cover a few more interesting patterns that you may notice along the way:
- Often you will notice that vowels change from closed to open when the word is pluralized. For example:
- The vowels in al and el are open when they are part of the same syllable:
- For words that end in -oso, the stressed syllable in the masculine, singular version gets a closed vowel, while all the other forms get the open vowel:
- There are some words which are spelled exactly the same, but that have different pronunciations depending on the intended meaning (called homographs):