Pronunciation Guide for European Portuguese Vowels

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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio cake
Furthermore, notice how the a is pronounced differently when different accent marks are added:
a paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio the
paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio there is
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

Openness

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 the ´accent denotes an open vowel. We can hear the distinction in these examples (the first 2 are minimal pairs):

  • Open: avó paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio grandmother vs. Closed: avô paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio grandfather
  • Open: está paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio it is vs. Medium: esta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio this
  • Medium: a melancia paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio watermelon vs. Closed: o jardim de infância paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio kindergarten

Frontness

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.

Roundness

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.

Nasality

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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad from the nasal vowel in the word mão paused audio playing audio 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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio good, o campo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio 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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to love or cama paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bed.

Stress

Usually, the second to last, i.e. penultimate syllable, gets the stress. For example:
Maria Play normal audio Maria
biblioteca paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio library
melancia paused audio playing audio Play slow audio 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:
ria paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio slang
distância Play normal audio distance
o coração paused audio playing audio Play slow audio 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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio some, a few (masc.)
Câmara Municipal paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio City Hall
Eu bebi um copo de água paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I drank a glass of water
Ele falou muito alto paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio He spoke very loudly
It’s also worth noting that unstressed vowels are almost always closed.

Reduced Vowels

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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I couldn't care less (idiom)
Foi aquele tipo que me disse isso. paused audio playing audio 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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio house casa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio house  má Play normal audio bad fã Play normal audio fan lâmina Play normal audio blade
E: se paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio if energia Play normal audio energy sê paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio be(imperative) sé paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio cathedral
I: obrigada paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio thank you (fem.) a família Play normal audio family
O: falo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I speak o estômago paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio stomach só paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio only, just
U: tu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio you
Diphthongs: mau paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio bad mão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio hand pai paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio father mãe paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio mother rei Play normal audio king teu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio your céu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sky ouviu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio heard feijões paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio beans dois paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio two herói Play normal audio hero estou paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I am ruivo Play normal audio redhead

Other Notes

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:
    • ovo Play normal audio eggovos Play normal audio eggs
    • olho Play normal audio eyeolhos Play normal audio eyes
    • There are plenty of exceptions, though, so this isn’t a set rule!
  • The vowels in al and el are open when they are part of the same syllable:
    • relva Play normal audio grass
    • o casal paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio the couple
  • 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:
    • famoso Play normal audio famous (masc.) famosos Play normal audio famous (masc.,pl.) famosa Play normal audio famous (fem.) famosas Play normal audio famous (fem.,pl.)
  • There are some words which are spelled exactly the same, but that have different pronunciations depending on the intended meaning (called homographs):
    • sede - sede paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio headquarters - thirst
    • para - para paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio stop - to
    • erro - erro paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I make mistakes - mistake

Can’t get enough of European Portuguese vowels? For a live demonstration and further explanation, check out our video: Open & Closed Vowels or practice / continue on with our unit on Minimal Pairs.

Comments

  • uau! Este manual de pronuncia é fantástico! Adicionei-o como uma página favorita. É difícil pronunciar os vocais corretamente enquanto estou a conversar mais concordo que o melhor maneira de praticar é ouvir um falante nativo. Muito obrigada – o que aprendo aqui em Practice Portuguese é inestimável!

  • This is incredibly helpful. Any chance you can add audio for the pair sede-sede. I’d love to hear the difference.

    • Glad we could help! We’ve added sede – sede to the list to be recorded. 🙂 (We record in batches, so there may be a delay.)

  • Amazingly useful but for consulting from time to time, in one go it’s indigestible
    Back in the day , as a French teacher I sometimes suggested pronouncing e.g. table as tab-LUH, then tab, then trying for a halfway house tabl
    This would work for O and E in unstressed syllables at the end of a word e.g. issO, then iss, finally iss(with ‘o’ as a whisper)

  • This must have taken FOREVER to put together! I am very impressed. From one teacher to another, your site is top-notch and I am enjoying it very much.

  • Oi! Just starting and I can see my Spanish will be both a blessing and a curse: A blessing in the similarity of vocabulary, a curse in instinctively defaulting to Spanish pronunciation!

    • I felt the same way when I started! Don’t worry, it will get easier over time with lots of listening practice! 🙂

  • Sure would be swell if the English translations were included in this spectacular vowel sound chart! I learn the correct way to say something. Though I don’t know what I’m saying.

  • Acho mesmo difícil reconhecer os sons. Apesar de termos muitos sons “iguais”, em teoria, em francês, nao sempre os reconheço em português. O meu pesadelo é o “a” fechado que nao existe em francês. Estive a comparar os sons do catalao e do português e sao mesmo muito semelhantes. Percebo porque tinha a impressao, no inicio, que o português europeu era catalao 🙂
    Obrigada pelo trabalho, é mesmo muito útil embora ache difícil conseguir discriminar estes sons e, ainda mais, reproduzilos!

    • Olá, Camille! Obrigado pelo comentário e parabéns pelo português excelente. É preciso muita persistência para treinar o ouvido a identificar os diferentes sons (sobretudo aqueles que “engolimos”), mas não é impossível. É interessante falares no catalão, porque realmente tem uma sonoridade mais próxima do português do que o castelhano (mas eu acho muito mais difícil de compreender!).

  • Every time I come back to these studies, I am impressed once again in the depth of understanding that you offer us.

  • A number of words when spoken, eg, Alguns, that are supposed to have the accent on the last syllable sound to me like the accent is on the first syllable.
    Maria and melancia sound like the emphasis is on the second from the last syllable unless “ia” doesn’t count as 2 syllables. Am I hearing that correctly?
    Thanks.

    • You are correct that the emphasis is on the 2nd from the last syllable in both Maria and melancia. This is the default placement for the stress in Portuguese words. In both examples, that syllable is the one with the “i” vowel. So it sounds like Ma-RI-a and me-lan-CI-a.

      As for alguns, this is one of the exceptions where the stress is on the last syllable instead: al-GUNS. It’s a bit harder to tell with short words since they tend to sound more evenly stressed sometimes, but if you try to extend the “al” and then say “guns” very quickly, you’ll notice that it doesn’t sound right. (Sorry, it’s hard to describe this in written form!)

  • A bit confusing on this. Letter by Letter A: says casa twice. I know they’re talking about different “A”s, but perhaps you could use a different example. THEN, if you wish to show how they are pronounced differently in the same word you could do that separately.

  • Those last 3 examples will take much practice! Very helpful tutorial. Avô and Avó kill me every time.

    • Yes, there are lots of tricky pairs like that! Sometimes, as with avô/avó or por/pôr, the accents help to distinguish them in writing, but then in conversation, we have to rely solely on our ears. Time and effort – it’ll get easier 🙂

  • Greetings! I understand that the generally accepted IPA symbol for the portuguese closed “a” (e.g., “amigo”) is [ɐ], or upside-down a.

    In practice though, that closed “a” always sounds more like a schwa [ə] than an [ɐ] to my american-english-speaking ears. And Wikipedia seems to confirm: in its entry for “Portuguese phonology,” it says regarding the closed a sound that “in European Portuguese, . . . [ə] is more prevalent in nearly all unstressed syllables.”

    Am I nuts? Is it really (or at least sometimes) [ə], despite what the IPA says?

    • Good point, I believe you’re right — that despite the convention of using [ɐ], [ə] may actually be more accurate when it’s an unstressed syllable. This is at least true for the standard “Lisbon” accent.

      You may have also seen this in the Wikipedia article:

      “In European Portuguese, the stressed [ɐ] only occurs in the following three contexts:
      – Before a palatal consonant (such as telha)
      – Before the palatal front glide (such as lei)
      – Before a nasal consonant (such as cama)”

      (Just as an added reference for anyone coming across this comment: here’s a chart where one can hear the difference between the two: [ɐ] vs. [ə])

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