The challenge with Portuguese is a little switch in an accent or a double letter will change the pronunciation. So when you try to say “bread” (pão) you may well be saying “stick” (pau), which also happens to be slang for a male’s member… Your native language moulds the way you pronounce vowels and consonants that without careful adjustments and attention to detail could render you entirely misunderstood.
When I moved to Brazil we used to have a gallon of water delivered that would run through a machine and spurt out refreshingly cold mineral water. The problem was, was that I had to phone up to get this luxury. My Brazilian husband would disappear to work and I would sit twiddling my thumbs rehearsing my water-order script.
Only my pronunciation of my address would leave the water gallon man wondering the streets searching for an unknown location. After some time and several adrift water gallons, the phone attendant took the liberty to write a little note so that whenever my foreign accent barked on the other side of the phone, he’d jump in with my beautifully pronounced address. 30 minutes later and I’d be gulping down mouthfuls of chilled water.
4 years on and I’ve created this guide to common Portuguese pronunciation mix ups. A simple reference guide to get you on the right track to pronouncing Portuguese as it should be. No more afternoons spent rehearsing a Portuguese script and no more vanished takeaways, water gallons or cab rides.
Tip: run these words through Linguee to check the pronunciation differences. You can select European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese accents.
Pronunication of the Double R
Double “RR” sounds more like a “H” than the English pronunciation. And that’s where Portuguese differs from Spanish. There’s no rolling “R’s” in Portuguese pronunciation, just a slight flick of the tongue.
Morar – to live (pronounce the R – moorah)
Morrer – to die (pronounce as a horsey H – morhair)
Caro – expensive (like in Spanish – caroo)
Carro – a car (pronounce as a horsey H – cahoo)
Ruim (adj) – bad (pronounce as a H – whoin)
Portuguese Verbs Close in Appearance, Yet Far in Meaning
Sentir (to feel) – conjugated in the following way: eu sinto, tu sentes, você/ele/ela sente, nós sentimos, vocês/eles/elas sentem.
Sentar-se (to sit) – conjugated in the following way: eu me sento, tu te sentas, você/ele/ela se senta, nós nos sentamos, vocês/eles/elas se sentam.
Vir (to come) – venho, vens, vem, vimos, vêm
Ver (to see) – vejo, vês, vê, vemos, vêem
Lavar (to wash) – lavo, lavas, lava, lavamos, lavam
Louvar (to praise) – louvo, louvas, louva, louvamos, louvam
Levar (to take) – levo, levas, leva, levamos, levam
Commonly Mixed Up Portuguese Words
Luva (a glove)
Louva (a praise)
Lava (subs) (lava – from a volcano) and Lava (verb) (você/ele/ela wash)
Leve (light adj.)
The Tricky Ç (c cedilha) and Pronunciation of the Ss and Zs
In episode number 5 of Space Force, Steve Carrel’s daughter laughs at a cadet who pronounces açaí as akai. The “Ç” in Portuguese is a soft “C,” therefore pronounced the equivalent as an “S.”
This is important because faça is “do it” and faca is “knife.”
The single “S” is pronounced as a “Z.” Therefore casa (house) in English would be written caza. Whereas caça (hunt) in English would be written cassa.
The “Z” follows the same rules as English. It looks like a “Z” and it sounds like a “Z.”
Diz (he/she/it/you say)
Ão vs Au (the Dreaded Nasals)
Nasal sounds only appear in the English language when we’ve got a blocked nose. In Portuguese they infiltrate the language, showing up a a floating quiver above some “A’s” and some “O’s”. Sometimes not nailing the nasal sound won’t make a difference. Other times you’ll be faced by blank stares or abashed expressions.
Pão = bread (nasally)
Pau = stick (non-nasally)
Mãe = mother (nasally)
Mão = hand (nasally)
Má = feminine bad adj (non-nasally)
Mau = masculine bad adj (non-nasally)
São = they are (nasally)
The following two words are pronounced the same (except for the nasal Ã), which completely changes the meaning.
Maçã = an apple
Massa = dough or pasta or cool!
Examples of the different uses of Massa:
- Que massa que conseguiu um novo emprego! (How cool that you got a new job)
- Massa folhada é muito gostosa. (Puff pastry is very tasty)
- Quero massa de puttanesca. (I want puttanesca pasta)
Pronunciation of M in the Portuguese Language
In Portuguese the “M” is pronounced with your mouth open, as if you are half-way through the word and think again about finishing it. The closed sound is pronounced at the back of the throat, rather than through smacking your lips together. Additionally, Portuguese words don’t end with an “N” (unless a foreign word has entered the language like “design” or “bacon”). For example, “train” translates as “trem.”
“M” is so important in Portuguese because 3rd person singular and plural verbs all end with it. See below.
Vem – he/ she/ it comes & you come
Vêm – they come & you plural come
Tem – he/ she/ it has & you have
Têm – they have & you plural have
Bem/ bom – well/ good (adj)
Sem / sim / cem – without/ yes / 100
Nem – not even
Check out the song “Nem Vem Que Não Tem” by Wison Simonal for a quick lesson in the Portuguese “M.”
Finally Some Lessons on “O” in Portuguese Pronunciation
Sou – I am (pronounced as the word “sew” in English)
Só – Only (pronounced as a short, open sound, not like the English “so,” which is far too long)
Vou – I go (Voh – like oh with a V in front)
Vô – grandad (just v+o, make sure it is an open up sound)
Vó – grandma (like mow but with a V in front)
Voo – a flight (like “vó” above, but with an extra “O” on the end)
Dou – I give (doe like the female deer)
Do – of the (do, like just do it!)
Doi – it hurts (doy like toy with a “D”)