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
- ‘Se’ sound – At the beginning of a word or after a consonant (usually the letter n)
- ‘Ze’ sound – Between vowel sounds it sounds like the letter z in English
Temos água** We have water
Fomos hoje**We went today
**Notice in these last two examples that the same rule holds true in continuous speech, even if the vowel sound appears in the next word. In the phrase Temos água, the s at the end of ‘temos’ comes before the vowel á in ‘água’, so you hear it as a ‘ze’ sound. Similarly, the s at the end of ‘fomos’ sounds like ‘ze’ because it comes before the vowel sound at the beginning of the word ‘hoje’. (The consonant h is not pronounced at the beginning of Portuguese words, so the first sound is a vowel: hoje )
- ‘Sh’ sound – Before a consonant or at the end of a word
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:
The Digraph SS
The Letter C
- ‘Se’ sound – If followed by the vowels e or i
- ‘Sh’ sound – If followed by the consonant h, it forms the digraph ch which sounds like ‘sh’
- ‘Que’ sound – If followed by the vowels a, o or u, however, C acquires a totally different sound, being pronounced like the letter K
- There’s also the letter Ç , called C-cedilha or C-cedilhado, which always represents the ‘se’ sound:
Mixing things up
Not surprisingly, even natives sometimes make mistakes and write ss instead of ç, ç instead of just c, or s instead of z, because they can all sound the same. Since the specific letter used depends mostly on the word’s origin and history, the only way to avoid those mistakes is to get enough exposure to the words in both written and spoken form.
Just for fun: some tricky examples to help you practice pronunciation!
Nós os dois Both of us