portuguese-accent-marks

Perfect Pronunciation: Portuguese Accent Marks and Their Many Sounds

Portuguese has many sounds.

It’s romantic and beautiful.

It’s lyrical and musical.

And sometimes, it’s just… nasal!?

Some days it easily resembles Spanish, other days it sounds almost like Polish. Sometimes it sounds like it’s just making things up.

Why does this diversity happen? Portuguese accent marks are partially to blame.

The accent mark above or below a given letter can change its pronunciation just slightly… or completely.

Let’s learn what these little marks mean and how to pronounce them!

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Why Learn How to Read Accent Marks in Portuguese?

I can hear you now:

“Aren’t they just little accessories?”

Absolutely not!

As a Portuguese learner, you should pay attention to accent marks because:

  • They can completely change the meaning of a word.
  • They tell you where to place emphasis within a word.
  • They show you how to pronounce a certain letter.
  • They exist in all varieties of the Portuguese language, from Portugal and Angola to Brazil.

On that last note: Luckily, accent marks don’t vary in meaning—they have the same effect in pronunciation wherever you go.

However, be careful! Just because accent marks are pronounced the same way across countries, it doesn’t mean that they’re always used in the exact same words everywhere. More on that below!

Keep reading to discover more about the different Portuguese accent marks, how they change words, how to use them and what examples you can start studying today!

Did you think we’d leave you hanging in terms of how a certain word sounds? No way! Click any Portuguese word in the examples below to hear it pronounced (mostly in Brazilian Portuguese).

portuguese-accent-marks

Want even more pronunciation practice? Check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

That means you can see each word written down in the interactive subtitles and hear it pronounced by native speakers!

A Portuguese FluentU program is currently in development, so check back soon to get some great practice matching written Portuguese with its proper pronunciation.

Say It with Cedilha! Portuguese Accent Marks and Their Proper Pronunciations

The Acento Circunflexo, or Caret (^)

Letters that use it: â, ê, ô

What it does: Turns a regular letter that would be pronounced very openly into a letter that’s pronounced with a closed mouth.

How to use it:

It’s simple. All you have to do is pretend you’re drinking from a straw while pronouncing these letters!

Can you tell the difference between the letter a in the English word “father” and the absolutely different type of a you’d find in the word “alphabet”?

This difference also exists in Portuguese, too—we just sometimes use an accent mark to change a into the kind you find in “alphabet.”

The same is true for the letters e and o.

For instance, in a word like ferro (iron), the letter e will sound like in the English word “better.” That would be the typical e sound in the Portuguese language.

However, words that use a caret will transform into something similar to the English sound in the word “sin” or “win.”

Similarly, while the letter o would regularly be heard in Portuguese either as a very open letter (like in the English word “odd”) or as pretty much the same as the letter u (like in the English word “troops”), the caret changes everything once again!

Can you think of the o sound in the English word “flow”? That’s the effect of this little “hat” in the Portuguese vowel!

Examples: 

âmbito (scope)

âmbar (amber)

pêlo (hair)

Inês (female name)

pôr (to put)

Remember: Not every word that includes this sound will necessarily have an accent mark to signal it.

For example, the words amigo (friend), dentro (inside) or porco (pig) all have vowels that are pronounced exactly as if they had a caret on them, but they don’t. You’ll learn as you go… promise!

The Agudo e Grave, or Acute and Grave Marks (´, `)

Letters that use them: á, à, é, í, ó, ú

What it does: Forces any letter to be very, very open, and places the stress on that letter.

How to use them:

Open your mouth and say “Aaaah”! Isn’t it great that you get to be dramatic with every vowel there is!?

Here’s a guide to the equivalent sounds in English:

  • á, à — aaahhhh (like in “father”)
  • é — eh (like in “seven”)
  • í — ee (like in “peak”)
  • ó — oh (like in “odd”)
  • ú — oo (like in “roof”)

You might be wondering what the difference is between á and à. In terms of pronunciation, they’re exactly the same.

Actually, the difference is only found in writing—you’ll only find à when the letter stands alone or with an s in front of it with the meaning of “to” or “on.”

We know, it’s so specific!

Here are some examples of this:

Eu só como sopa às sexta-feiras. (I only eat soup on Fridays.)

Estou à espera! (I’m waiting!)

Vou à Alemanha. (I will go to Germany.)

Fui às cidades mais bonitas da Europa. (I went to the most beautiful cities in Europe.)

When using this accent mark in any other situation, always use the one pointing to the right side, like in the examples below.

Examples:

(there is, there are)

máquina (machine)

(evil or mean female)

épico (epic)

íntimo (intimate)

óbvio (obvious)

útil (useful)

à (to, on)

Remember: Just like with the caret, this sound isn’t always accompanied by an accent mark.

The following words, for example, all have vowels that are pronounced exactly as if they have an acute accent mark on them, but they don’t:

pai (father)

mala (bag)

ferro (iron)

colo (lap)

Step by step, you’ll start getting used to these specific words!

Also: Remember the caret? Keep in mind that where European Portuguese (in Portugal) uses ó, Brazilian Portuguese will often use ô instead, with the necessary pronunciation changes.

Examples of this are:

arquitetónico (PT)  arquitetônico (BR)

atómico (PT) → atômico (BR)

anatómico (PT) → anatômico (BR) 

This means that European Portuguese actually has some open vowel sounds that transform into very closed sounds in Brazilian Portuguese, and vice-versa.

The Til, or Tilde (~)

Letters that use it: ã, õ

What it does: Changes a regular letter into one with a nasal sound.

How to use it:

Think of the English word “part.” Now think of the English word “train.” Can you hear how the letter becomes slightly more nasal in the latter—that is, you use your nose to create the sound more than usual?

Similarly, the regular o in Portuguese would sound either like in the English word “boy” or “roof” (depending on the position of the letter inside a word… but that’s a story for another post!), but the letter õ would be pronounced as in the word “ointment”—again, a little bit more nasal!

Examples:

mãe (mother)

cão (dog)

canção (song)

intenção (intention)

relação (relationship)

põe (he/she/it puts, or imperative “put”)

orações (prayers)

corações (hearts)

One thing you’ll soon notice about the Portuguese language is that whenever a word ends in –ão in the singular, it’s likely to use the sounds –ãos and –ões in its plural version.

Additionally, if the word ends in –ãe in the singular, it’s likely to end with –ães in the plural version.

Here are some times when this happens:

coração  corações (heart  hearts)

mão → mãos (hand  hands)

canção → canções (song  songs)

mãe  mães (mother  mothers).

By the way! Did you know that the letter e can also have its own nasal version, even though it’s not signaled with an accent mark?

Check the pronunciation of these words: sem (without), cem (one hundred) and tem (he/she/it has). See how that sounds extremely similar to ãe? That’s because it’s the exact same sound, only written a different way!

You’ll find this a lot in the Portuguese language: several sounds are similar, just written differently.

The Cedilha, or Hook (¸)

Letter that uses it: ç

What it does: Turns a regular hard c an s sound!

How to use it: 

In Portuguese, we have at least four different ways of writing the regular, normal sound s: with an s, with a c (only when followed by an e or an i), with two s (ss) and with a ç.

Why all of these different ways of writing the exact same sound? No idea, but we can give you some examples of what that looks like!

This means theese words all have the same s sound, despite being written differently: cedo (early), saco (bag), sede (thirst), massa (pasta), sedar (to sedate), cela (prison cell), segundo (second), segredo (secret), seca (drought), cimento (cement) and Cinderela (Cinderella).

Add the letter ç to this repertoire! Whenever you see the letter ç, you must pronounce it as a strong s.

Examples:

maçã (apple)

maçaneta (door handle)

canção (song)

praça (city square)

descrição (description)

esperança (hope)

intenção (intention)

ambição (ambition)

relação (relationship)

 

If this brief explanation isn’t satisfying your cedilha curiosity nearly as much as you’d like, Fun with Brazilian Portuguese has a post all about the use of cedilha in Brazilian Portuguese… which is the same way it’s used in Portuguese from all over the world!

 

Portuguese accent marks can be tricky, but all can be achieved with the right combination of online courses, exposure to basic Portuguese phrases to stand on your own two feet from day one and some handy resources to catch that sneaky grammar off-guard!

Still craving more pronunciation tips? We’ve done the homework for you!

Ready for more than just pronunciation hacks? Here’s how to practice your awesome Portuguese skills… without ever leaving your computer.

Let those little Portuguese accent marks lead the way to expert pronunciation!

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