The Letters S and C

As is the case with most languages, the same letter can be associated with different phonemes — that is to say, the same letter can be pronounced in many different ways. You’ve probably noticed that Portuguese is no exception. Two of these letters that have many variations are S and C:

  • Sucesso Success – In this example, different letters/digraphs (s, c, and ss) have the same sound.
  • Concessão Concession  – Here we have the same letter (c), but two different sounds.

In this Learning Note, you’ll learn how to pronounce these letters by paying attention to how they are positioned within a word or phrase.

The Letter S

Depending on where it’s placed, and the letters surrounding it, s can have 3 different sounds: se , ze, or sh

    • ‘Se’ sound – At the beginning of a word or after a consonant (usually the letter n)

Sapo Frog
Sentido Sense
Sim Yes
Tensão Tension
Pensar Think

    • ‘Ze’ sound – Between vowels it sounds like the letter z in English

Asa Wing
Rosa Rose
Isolador Isolator
Peso Weight
Riso Laughter
Temos água We have water

(Notice in this last example that the same rule holds true between vowels in continuous speech, even if the vowel appears in the next word. The s at the end of ‘temos’ comes before the vowel á in ‘água’, so you hear it as a ‘ze’ sound.)

    • ‘Sh’ sound – Before a consonant or at the end of a word

Isto This
Pescar Fish
Poste Post
Barcos Boats
Ares Airs
Temos cerveja We have beer

(Notice again in this last example that the rule holds true between words in continuous  speech.)

Important Note: The ‘sh’-like sounds you hear in these words are not exactly the same. At the end of a word, it’s a subtle ‘sh’ sound. Before a consonant, it becomes more similar to a soft ‘j’ sound, like the sound made by the ‘s’ in “pleasure”. To compare, listen to these examples of words that contain both sounds:
Postes Posts
Estas These

The Digraph SS

A digraph is a combination of two letters that represent a phoneme. In this case, ss has the se sound:
Impressionante Impressive
Passeio Walk
Sessão Session

The Letter C

The letter C can sound like se , sh, or que , depending on its placement.

  • ‘Se’ sound – If followed by the vowels e or i

Certo Right
Cinco Five
Conceder Grant
Pocilga Pigpen

  • ‘Sh’ sound – If followed by the consonant h, it forms the digraph ch which sounds like ‘sh’

Chega Enough
Macho Male
Tocha