Learn European Portuguese

Vowel Pronunciation Guide

This is the second part of this European Portuguese Pronunciaton Tutorial, in the first part we explained consonant pronunciation.

Vowels are the most complex thing in Portuguese pronunciation. Just like English, Portuguese is a stress timed language and has a large vowel inventory. This means the stressed syllables are strongly pronounced, while the unstressed syllables are shorter and usually their vowels become reduced.

The good thing is that most of the times there is little ambiguity. Knowing the rules you can read Portuguese with an accurate pronunciation.

In this tutorial I'll start by stating the most general rules, those that are applied most of the times, and then I'll refine them for specific situations.

First, lets get to know the vowels:

Plain vowels:

NameIPASpellingExampleEnglish Approximation
Open A/a/A, ÁparteAHpart
Closed A/ɐ/A, ÂaméricaUHamerica
Open E/ɛ/E, ÉaméricaEHamerica
Closed E/e/E, ÊmesaI~EHpin~pen
Mute E/ɨ/EdeU~UHthe~full
I/i/IbifeEEbeef
Open O/ɔ/O, ÓmodoAWlaw
Closed O/o/O, Ô, OUportoOHcold (AE)
U/u/UfutebolOOfootball

Nasal vowels:

NameIPASpellingExample
Nasal A/ɐ̃/AM, AN, Ãcampo, planta, ilusão
Nasal E/ẽ/EM, ENtempo, centro
Nasal I/ĩ/IM, INimportante, interior
Nasal O/õ/OM, ON, Õcompleto, longo, ilusões
Nasal U/ũ/UM, UNtumba, adjunto

As you see, we have pretty much the basic 5 vowels, with an open/closed version for A, E and O, a mute version for E, and a nasal version of the 5 basic vowels based in their closed form.

Word Stress - Accentuation Rules

Since the vowel pronunciation is heavilly dependent of the stress, we should be able to identify the stressed syllable.
The stress is marked by diacritic marks, we call them accents in Portuguese. They not only mark the stress but also the vowel quality (open, closed or nasal).
There is the acute accent (´) which marks an open stressed vowel, the circunflex accent (^) which marks a closed stressed vowel, and there is the tilde (~) that will mark a nasal vowel, and make it stressed unless one of the other accents is already present in that word.

Examples:

Vowel - AccentedQualityExampleIPAMeaning
AÁOpenxi'ta.ksitaxi
ÂClosedmara'cɐ.mɐ.ɾɐcamera
ÃNasalcanhão'ɲɐ̃w̃cannon
EÉOpennix'fɛ.niksfenix
ÊClosedssego'pe.sɨ.gupeach
IÍ-impossívelĩ.pu'sivɛlimpossible
OÓOpenópera.pɨ.ɾɐopera
ÔClosedrepôsrɨ.'poʃput back
ÕNasalrepõerɨ.'põjputs back
UÚ-único'u.ni.kuunique

Since marking all words with an accent would be very annoying, there are rules to preditct the stressed syllable, thus only stressed syllables not predicted by these rules need an accent.

The rules to predict the stress are based in the last letter of the word, ignoring final S, M and NS:

Ending:Stressed SyllableExamples
A, E or OSecond to lastborra, borras, borram, borracha, colhe, colhes, colhem, recolhe, molho, molhos
I or ULastpari, paris, enfim, guru, gurus, atum, atuns
Consonantnormal, nuclear, ineficaz, hotel, remover, acidez, metanol, mentor

Nasal Vowels Pronunciation

Any vowel with a tilde or an N/M at the end of the syllable will be nasal.
There are only 5 nasal vowels and they always correspond to the vowel letter.
The only exception is for words ending in AM and EM, which become nasal diphtongs:

Ending:DiphtongExampleIPA
AMÃOfalam'fa.lɐ̃w
EMÃEfalem'fa.lɐ̃j

Plain Vowels Pronunciation

This is the very general case:

LetterStressedVowelExampleIPA
AYesOpen Acasa'ka.zɐ
NoClosed Acasa'ka.zɐ
EYesOpen Emetro'mɛ.tɾu
Closed Emedo'me.du
NoMute Eenergiainɨɾ.'ʒi.ɐ
I-IParispɐ.'ɾiʃ
OYesOpen Ocome'kɔm.ɨ
Closed Ocomo'kom.u
NoUcomo'kom.u
U-Uuniversou.ni.'vɛɾ.su

Now a little more complete:

LetterStressedContextVowelExampleIPA
AYes-Open Acasadakɐ.'za.dɐ
NoMost casesClosed Acasadakɐ.'za.dɐ
Syllable ending in L (usually)Open Aaltaral.'taɾ
Syllable ending in R (sometimes)açúcarɐ.'su.kaɾ
-Followed by nasal consonant: N, M or NHClosed Aano'ɐ.nu
amo'ɐ.mu
anho'ɐ.ɲu
EYes-Open Emetro'mɛ.tɾu
Closed Emedo'me.du
NoMost casesMute Eenergiainɨɾ.'ʒi.ɐ
Word beginning (can be preceded by H)Ienergiai.nɨɾ.'ʒi.ɐ
Next to another vowelrealʀi.'al
poesiapu.i.'zi.ɐ
I--Iimagemi.'ma.ʒɐ̃j
OYes-Open Ocome'kɔm.ɨ
Closed Ocomo'kom.u
NoMost casesUPortugalpuɾ.tu.'ɡal
Word beginning (can be preceded by H)Closed Ooceanoo.si.'ɐ.nu
-Syllable ending in L (sometimes)Open Ovoltagemvɔl.'ta.ʒɐ̃j
Root of compound words (sometimes)Open Omotosserramɔ.tɔ.'sɛ.ʀɐ
U--Uuniversou.ni.'vɛɾ.su

There is another important case. Both Closed E and I sounds undergo dissimilation when they're next to palatal sounds.

In the case of the Closed E /e/, when it's followed by a palatal consonant or the vowel sound I, it will become a falling diphtong with the Closed A and the semivowel I: /ɐj/.

VowelStressedContextBecomesExampleExample IPA
Closed EAnySyllable: EIEI diphtong

/ɐj/
leite'lɐj.tɨ
Syllable: EXtexto'tɐjʃ.tu
YesFollowed by CHfecho'fɐj.ʃu
Followed by Jvejo'vɐj.ʒu
Followed by LHClosed Acoelhoku.'ɐ.ʎu
Followed by NHsenha'sɐ.ɲɐ

In the case of the I, including realizations of the E as I, it will become a Mute E.
Unlike the dissimilation of E, which always happens, the dissimilation of I it's an ongoing process. It only happens in unstressed syllables and it's more common in fast speech and some words are more likely to undergo this process while in others it might never happen.

VowelStressedContextBecomesExampleIPA
INoFollowed by syllable with I soundMute E

/ɨ/
ministromɨ.'niʃ.tɾu
Following stressed syllable with I soundpríncipe'pɾĩ.sɨ.pɨ
Followed by /ʃ/pistolapɨʃ.'tɔ.lɐ
Followed by /ʒ/pijamapɨ.'ʒɐ.mɐ
Followed by LHartilharɐɾ.tɨ.'ʎaɾ
Followed by NHcaminharcɐ.mɨ.'ɲaɾ

Finally, U may be silent after a Q or G:

LetterFollowed ByIPAPortuguese ExampleEnglish Approximation
QUA/kw/qualidadequality
E, I or O/k/quebequeantique
/kw/consequênciaconsequence
GUA or O/gw/guatemalaguatemala
E or I/g/portuguêsportuguese
/gw/ambiguidadeambiguity

Diphtongs

Once you apply the previous rules, unstressed I and U vowel sounds may become semivowels to form diphtongs whenever there are adjacent vowels. Falling diphtongs are mandatory whenever possible.
There will be no diphtong if the vowel that would become the semivowel is followed by a consonant (except S) in the same syllable.

And that's it! You have now a good idea how written text sounds like in Portuguese.

Watch some subtitled videos to see all this in practice! ⇨

Exercises:

Vowel Exercise 1: pay attention to the stressed syllables:

Vowel Exercise 2: pay attention to the vowel sound:

Continue to the videos page! ⇨

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