The Portuguese language, spoken in Portugal and Brazil, is a Romance language spoken by over 300 million people. The language of “Camões” (the famous Portuguese poet) is also the official language in Portugal’s former colonies: Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome, and Principe, Timor-Leste, Equatorial Guinea, and Macau. There are also communities that speak the Portuguese language in the cities of Goa, Daman, and Diu (in India) and Malacca (in Malaysia).
The Portuguese language is descended from Latin. Latin was brought to the Iberian peninsula by Roman soldiers and merchants (from 218 BC). The oldest records of the Portuguese language appear in formal documents of the 9th century after Christ. In 1290, King Dom Dinis decreed that the Portuguese language, at that time called the “vulgar language”, should be called Portuguese and it should be (from that moment on) the official language of Portugal.
Portuguese spelling has had many changes over time. In 1916, there was a reform that aimed to bring Portuguese spelling closer to Portuguese pronunciation. In Brazil, a modification occurred in 1943 and an important revision took place in 1970. As recently as 2009, a controversial new spelling revision took place in Portugal and Brazil. Although the new policy aimed to bring written Portuguese closer to all Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries, these updates have not yet entered into force in the other nations.
The Portuguese language reveals variations that are noted in different countries where Portuguese is the official language. Portuguese also has a temporal variation, an evolution seen in historical records. Since language is a form of human behavior, it is natural to vary over time. This change follows the concepts of life in a society. For the same reasons, all languages vary in space. These variations are related to the geographical or social origin of individuals.
Portuguese pronunciation is not easy especially for people who learn Portuguese as a foreign language. Many Portuguese words are very similar to Spanish and French words. However, they are pronounced very differently.
(Let’s use capital letters to identify the strongest syllable, the syllable that should be stressed in each word).
Rule 1: The strongest syllable in the Portuguese language is usually the penultimate (second to the last) syllable of words.
Rule 2: If the word has an accent (a tilde, a sharp accent, a grave accent, or a caret), then the stress of that word will be where that accent is.
Here are some examples:
1. If you have the word “maths – mateMÁtica” (this word isn’t the same as your next example of dividing it into syllables)” and if you divide the word into ma-te-MÁ-ca syllables, the word stress will fall on the syllable with the accent (MÁ).
– Heart : co-ra-ÇÃO
– Belem: be-LÉM
– We liked : gos-TÁ-mos
Rule 3 : If the word ends with -i, -l, -r, -z, -im, -un, -ins, or -uns, the stress changes to the last syllable (instead of the second to last syllable).
1. I ate : co-MI (show the stressed syllables)
3. Engine : Mo-TOR
4. Rice : Ar-ROZ
5. Some : Al-GUNS
7. Some : Al-GUM
Rule 4 : If the word ends with a diphthong (two vowels together) as examples are: irmão (brother), mãe (mother), cão (dog), cidadão (citizen), bacalhau (cod fish), then the last syllable is emphasized.
In Portuguese we have five vowels: a, e, i, o, u. When we read the alphabet the sounds of these vowels are: “a” as “a” in car; the “e”, like the “e” in “hell”; the “i”, like the “ee” in “tree”; the “o”, like the “a” in “all”; and the “u”, like the “u” in “fu”.
But of course, the vowels inserted into words do not just have these sounds. It would be very easy, right? The different sounds that vowels have in Portuguese depend on the many rules of verb conjugation. Sometimes the vowel sounds are open, sometimes closed, sometimes nasal and sometimes of low pronunciation.
In our opinion, a student learning Portuguese should not spend (much) energy memorizing all these Portuguese language rules. It is important to know the different sounds (as opposed to knowing the rules) in order to be able to recognize the sounds and then produce those same sounds intuitively.
Portuguese alphabet or “Alfabeto” consists of 23 letters. It is derived from Latin as is the English alphabet. Letters K, W, and Y are missing from the Portuguese alphabet. That happens because these letters only appear in foreign words. Y used to be used (although rarely) during the Renaissance but in 1911 the Portuguese spelling reform displaced the letter Y forever – replacing its sound with the letter ‘i’.
Just like English, some letters are pronounced in different ways according to where and how they appear in a specific word. For instance, in English, there are words ‘ever’ and ‘even’. Both start with the letter ‘e’ but this ‘e’ is pronounced differently in both words. There are some rules to follow which do need to be learned. But you will find that if you listen to Portuguese a lot, these rules eventually become absorbed and you will instinctively know how the letters should be pronounced. Compared to the English language, Portuguese is much more ‘say it as you see it’.