LearningPortuguese

Vowels

There are 4 defined ‘qualities’ of Portuguese vowels, known as open, closed, reduced, and nasal. These are not really hard-and-fast rules of pronunciation, more a categorisation of the ranges of sound that the vowels can represent. It is important to recognise these distinctions, because certain words rely on them to make their meaning clear. For example, the word ‘jogo’ can mean either ‘game’ or ‘I play’, depending on whether the pronunciation of the first ‘o’ is open or closed. The basic ranges of sounds for these vowel qualities are set out in the following table:

Portuguese vowel qualities

Vowel

Open Pronunciation

Closed Pronunciation

Reduced Pronunciation

Nasal Pronunciation

a

The range of sounds between the ‘a’ in ‘father’ to the ‘a’ in ‘cat’.

The range from the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ to the ‘a’ in ‘postman’.

The range from the ‘a’ in ‘postman’ to virtually silent.

Pronounced through the nose, similar to ‘an’ in ‘angry’.

e

Ranging from the ‘e’ in ‘chalet’ to the ‘e’ in ‘net’.

Ranging from the ‘e’ in ‘net’ to the first ‘e’ in ‘people’ (often pronounced as a sort of cross between the ‘ea’ of ‘ear’ and the ‘ai’ of ‘air’ – requires careful listening practice!).

From the first ‘e’ in ‘people’ to the ‘e’ in ‘payment’ through to virtually silent.

Similar to ‘an’ in ‘angel’, although keeping a hint of the open ‘e’ sound, and pronounced through the nose. Can also be pronounced like ‘en’ in ‘engine’ if there is a circumflex (^) over the ‘e’. Note: the letters ‘en’ are never pronounced like the ‘en’ in ‘rendez-vous’.

i

Like ‘i’ in ‘simple’, but with a very slightly longer sound (tending towards the ‘ee’ of ‘free’). No distinction is made between open, closed, and reduced. Note: the letter ‘i’ is never pronounced like the ‘i’ in ‘like’.

Similar to ‘En’ in ‘England’.

o

like ‘o’ in ‘hot’.

From the ‘oa’ in ‘coal’ to the ‘o’ in ‘look’.

like ‘o’ in ‘who’, but a very weak sound, almost like the ‘u’ in ‘rightful’. As with other reduced vowels, it can range to virtually silent.

similar to ‘on’ in ‘long’.

u

Like the last ‘u’ in ‘kung fu’. No distinction is made between open, closed, and reduced.

Similar to ‘un’ in ‘lung’, but more of an ‘oo’ than an ‘uh’.

Knowing when to use what type of vowel is to a large extent dependent on practice, but there are some rules that can help you. If a vowel has a circumflex over it (^), it must be pronounced using the close quality. If it has an acute accent (slanting upwards like this: ´ ), you must use the open quality – usually the acute é is pronounced as more of an ‘ay’.

A tilde (~) over a vowel indicates a nasal pronunciation, as does the letter m or n following the vowel (note that an ‘n’ or ‘m’ can follow a vowel which has an acute or circumflex accent over it – in which case both the nasal and open or close qualities should be evident in the way you pronounce it).

When a word ends with a vowel, or starts with an ‘e’, you would normally use the reduced quality unless there is an accent to indicate otherwise – however, an ‘e’ at the end of a word, followed by a vowel at the start of the next word, normally requires the ‘e’ to become more close – like the ‘e’ in ‘people’ (this is for ease of articulation).

So bearing in mind these principles, the following is a rather rough guide to get you started on pronouncing Portuguese vowels. With listening practice, you will be able to hone your pronunciation skills and will hopefully improve naturally as time goes by.

a
like ‘a’ in ‘cat’ except when on the stressed syllable, when it is more like the ‘a’ in ‘father’.
â
like ‘a’ in ‘cat’
á
sometimes like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’, sometimes like the ‘a’ in ‘father’
ã
similar to ‘an’ in ‘angry’
e
like ‘e’ in ‘net’ except when used as a word on its own without an accent or at the end of a word which is followed by a word that starts with a vowel, when it is pronounced like ‘e’ in ‘people’, or if it is followed by another vowel (in the same word), when it is more like the ‘e’ in ‘chalet’ (more of an ‘ay’ than an ‘e’).
ê
like ‘e’ in ‘net’, or a cross between the ‘ea’ of ‘ear’ and the ‘ai’ of ‘air’.
êm
like a more nasal version of the ‘en’ in ‘engine’
é
like ‘e’ in ‘net’, or like the ‘e’ in ‘chalet’.
ém
like ‘an’ in ‘angel’
em
like ‘an’ in ‘angel’
i
like ‘i’ in simple, but with a very slightly longer sound (tending towards the ‘ee’ of ‘free’).
o
usually like ‘o’ in ‘hot’ when stressed, but when on its own or at the end of a word, it is like a weak version of the ‘o’ in ‘who’.  Use of the close pronunciation (like the ‘oa’ in ‘coal’) is often impossible to determine except by careful listening practice – unless of course the circumflex (^) is used.
ó
like ‘o’ in ‘hot’
ô
like ‘oa’ in ‘coal’
u
like the last ‘u’ in ‘kung fu’.

A weak sound, such as produced when pronouncing reduced Portuguese vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’ is indicated in the pronunciation guides below by using superscript type (ie. small and high like this). Reduced ‘o’ is represented by the letter ‘u’ (or sometimes ‘oo’), because the English pronunciation of a ‘u’ is very similar to the Portuguese reduced ‘o’, but remember to weaken the sound of the vowel slightly. When a word starts or ends with an unstressed ‘e’, the vowel is usually dropped almost completely, and this is indicated below by the vowel being crossed out.

Where letters are enclosed in square brackets [like this], the sound of those letters should be merged with the sound of the previous letter or syllable. This is in an effort to try to represent sounds that don't exist in normal English usage.

Vowels that are followed by m or n, or have a tilde (~) over them are pronounced nasally, and this is represented in the pronunciation guides by ‘[ng]’. European Portuguese tend to slur a lot, making the language sound ‘slushy’ – almost drunken! Brazilians are a lot crisper and clearer, and they never drop reduced vowels completely.

fahlu li[ee]vru vendedor oo te[ay]nyu
goshtamoosh
open ‘a’, reduced ‘o’ reduced ‘o’ close ‘e’, closed ‘e’, open ‘o’ reduced ‘o’ open and nasal ‘e’, reduced ‘o’ reduced ‘o’, open (and slightly nasal) ‘a’, reduced ‘o’

 

guerra filha casa avó avô você
gairra filya
kahza
avoh
avo[ah]
vosseh
reduced ‘a’ reduced ‘a’ open ‘a’, reduced ‘a’ reduced 'a', open ‘o’ reduced 'a', closed ‘o’ open ‘o’, closed ‘e’

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