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 vowel sounds it sounds like the letter z in English

Asa Wing
Rosa Rose
Isolador Isolator
Peso Weight
Riso Laughter
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

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 Torch
Comichão 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 Bed
Copo Glass
Curto Short
Banco Bench

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

Cabeça Head
Coçar Scratch
Passadiço 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 sausage
Nós os dois 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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