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 cake
Furthermore, notice how the a is pronounced differently when different accent marks are added:
a the
there is
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 a ´accent denotes an open vowel. We can hear the distinction using minimal pairs like this one:
avô grandfather
avó grandmother

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 bad from the nasal vowel in the word mão 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 think, bom with, campo field. The exception would be if the n or m is followed by another vowel, the vowel remains oral, as in amar to love or cama bed.

Stress

Usually, the second to last, i.e. penultimate syllable, gets the stress. For example:
Maria Maria
biblioteca library
melancia watermelon
If you see an accent mark, however, this overrides the default rule, and the stress will be on the accented syllable instead:
ria slang
distância distance
coração 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): ai, ao, au, ou, oi, ei, ui, ão, ãe, õe

Eles são homens They are men
Câmara Municipal City Hall
Eu bebi um copo de água I drank a glass of water
Ele falou muito alto 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 I couldn't care less idiom
Foi aquele tipo que me disse isso. 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 He went out for dinner vs. Ele foi jantar fora BP 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 house casa house má bad fã fan lâmina blade
E: se if energia energy sê beimperative sé cathedral
I: obrigada thank you fem. família family
O: falo I speak estômago stomach só only, just
U: tu you
Diphthongs: mau bad mão hand pai father mãe mother rei king feijões beans estou I am

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 eggovos eggs
    • olho eyeolhos 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 grass
    • casal 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 famous masc. famosos famous masc.,pl. famosa famous fem. famosas 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 - sedeheadquarters - thirst
    • para - para stop - to
    • erro - erro 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.

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