how to pronounce S in Portuguese

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, so we’ll cover how to pronounce S in Portuguese and then how to pronounce C.

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

In this Learning Note, you’ll learn which pronunciation to use by paying attention to how the letter is 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' Play normal audio , 'ze' Play normal audio , or 'sh' Play normal audio

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

Sapo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Frog
Sentido paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Sense
Sim paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Yes
Tensão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Tension
Pensar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Think

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

Asa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Wing
Rosa paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Rose
Isolador paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Isolator
Peso paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Weight
Riso paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Laughter
Temos água** paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio We have water
Fomos hoje** Play normal audio 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 paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio )

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

Isto paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio This
Pescar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Fish
Poste paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Post
Barcos paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Boats
Ares paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Airs
Temos cerveja** paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio 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 an isolated word, or before a “voiceless” consonant, it’s a subtle ‘sh’ sound (the IPA symbol is ʃ ). Before a “voiced” consonant (b, d, g, j, l, lh, m, n, nh, r, rr, v, z), it becomes “voiced” and sounds like ‘zh’, like the sound made by the ‘s’ in “pleasure” (The IPA symbol for this sound is ʒ ). To compare, listen to the examples below. The first two use the ‘sh’ ( ʃ ) sound and the second two use the ‘zh’ ( ʒ ) sound:
Postes paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Posts
Estas paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio These
Mesmo Play normal audio Same
Os livrosthe books

The Digraph SS

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

The Letter C

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

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

Certo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Right
Cinco paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Five
Conceder paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Grant
Pocilga paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Pigpen

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

Chega paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Enough
Macho paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Male
Tocha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Torch
Comichão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Itch

  • ‘Que’ sound – If followed by the vowels a, o or u, however, C acquires a totally different sound, being pronounced like the letter K

Cama paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Bed
Copo paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Glass
Curto paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Short
Banco paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Bench

  • There’s also the letter Ç , called C-cedilha Play normal audio or C-cedilhado Play normal audio , which always represents the ‘se’ sound:

Cabeça paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Head
Coçar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Scratch
Passadiço paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Footbridge

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!
salsicha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sausage
Nós os dois paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Both of us

Comments:

  • In the phrase “Nós os dois” is the first S pronounced ze because it is between the o in Nós and the o in os? Thanks

  • Pergunta dois. In the above lesson the C and S in words sede and cede should be the same, “se”, but I hear the words pronounced differently. Is there a rule or it is one of many exceptions. Thanks

    • Hm, not sure if we can talk about rules or exceptions here, because it’s not even about the S or C consonants (which do sound the same), but about the E vowel, which can have different sounds in different words; it is what it is. When it comes to sede vs. cede, the first E is more closed in the former and open in the latter. But note that there’s more than one type of sede!
      Cede (open E) = To give in
      Sede (closed E) = Thirst
      Sede (open E) = Headquarters

      This last sede is pronounced just the same as cede.

  • Are there any exceptions to the “s” pronounced like “z” between vowels rule, specifically if the s is at the end of a word and leads into a word that begins with a vowel.

    For example, what about dois asas, muitos alunos, bons alunos, or os alunos?

    Obrigado,
    Tim

    • Olá, Tim. No exceptions that I can remember. In fast speech, all of those ending S letters before a vowel (duas; muitos; bons; os) would sound like ‘Z’ 🙂 The very last letters of the last words (asas; alunos) would keep the normal S sound (sss), because they don’t have any vowels in front of them.

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