A Closer Look at the Portuguese Consonants
Sometimes the same sound in a language can be expressed by different letters. This is the case in English, as with the [f] sound that is pronounced using the upper teeth and the bottom lip and can happen at the beginning of a word like fact or at the end of a word like enough! The same happens in Portuguese. The same [s] sound can be heard in words such as simples (simple) or cartaz (poster), cinema (movie), or even in excelente (excellent). Similarly, the same letter can refer to very different sounds. In the next few tables we will cover the major pitfalls of spelling and pronunciation in Portuguese, letter by letter.
The Letter C
Before vowels e or i this letter has a “soft” [s] sound as in the English word “force.” Examples are centro (center) and cinco (five). However, before vowels a,o,u, and most consonants, the letter has a “hard” [k] sound as in the English word “coat.” Some examples are casa (house), comida (food), cuidado (care), crédito (credit), or clínica (clinic).
The Letter G
This letter often stands in for a sound that does not appear at the beginning of English words, but can be found in the middle of the word “measure.” In Portuguese it appears at the beginning of words when the vowels e or i follow it, such as in gente (people) and ginásio (gym). It has a “hard” sound when it appears before vowels a,o,u, and other consonants, as in the English word “game.” Examples are gato (cat), gota (drop), guri (young boy), and grande (big).
The Letter S
This letter can stand in for two different but closely related sounds. The first sound is very similar to the sound in English words “sink” and “cast.” The Portuguese examples are sopa (soup), esse (this one), and lápis (pencil). The second is a raspier [z] sound as in the English words “those,” “wisdom,” and “transit.” The counterpart examples in Portuguese are casada (married), desde (since), and trânsito (traffic).
The Letter Z
This letter is very similar to the English letter, especially in the start of words. As with the English word “zebra,” the same sound is found in Portuguese with zero (zero) and prazer (pleasure). However, this letter has a sound similar to the English word “cooks” at the end of segments, such as in the Portuguese example cartaz (poster).
The Letter T
In some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese, such as the carioca (the name of the dialect of Rio de Janeiro), this letter can have a much unexpected sound. Before the vowels i and sometimes e if unstressed and at the end of a word, it will sound as in the English word “cheer!” So Portuguese words such as tipo (type) and elefante (elephant) will sound like CHEE-poh and eh-leh-FAHN-chee. This does not happen in all contexts. In the case of the letter appearing before other vowels and consonants, it sounds as in the English word “time” (without the added aspiration). Portuguese examples are terra (earth) and trem (train).
The Letter D
As with the previous letter, the a similar unexpected sound appears when in close contact with the letter i. So, much like the sound in the English word “jeans,” the Portuguese word dia (day) might be pronounced like JEE-ah. Before all other contexts, the letter behaves like the English word “den,” yielding Portuguese examples such as dar (to give) and droga (drug).
Because these curious sounds with the letters t and d before i are pronounced by speakers of Rio de Janeiro, a more economically developed area, they are seen as more prestigious pronunciations. However, for most of the north, northeast, and south of Brazil, they are mostly ignored and speakers communicate successfully pronouncing the t and the d similarly to the English letters.
The Letter R
This letter has two basic sounds, which are very different from the English r. First, it is pronounced like the [h] as in the English word “heat.” Portuguese examples are rua (street), dor (pain), guardanapo (napkin), carro (car), and genro (son-in-law). Second, this letter in Portuguese is pronounced similarly to the r at the end of English words “letter” or “later.” It can be found in Portuguese words such as caro (expensive) and branco (white).
You will notice that Brazilians will leave out the r sound at the ends of words, such as amor (love) or chamar (to call). This is not seen as a reflection of uneducated speech or laziness, but rather an evolution of the language. The same happened with French, whose final consonants are never pronounced! So, to sound more native, make sure to drop the end-word r in Portuguese!
The Letter L
The one thing to remember about this letter is that at the end of words the l sounds like a w as in the English word “now.” So the Portuguese word Brasil sounds like BRAH-zeew. The letter behaves like the English letter l at the beginning of words.
The Letters M and N
As you might have noticed, Portuguese has a good many nasal sounds. The letters m and n, when appearing at the end of a word or syllable, are an indication that the previous vowel is nasalized. Thus, the combination of vowel plus m or n should not be perceived as two different sounds (vowel plus consonant) but actually a nasal-sounding vowel. Portuguese words such as sim (yes) and bom are pronounced by making more air to come out of your nostrils and avoiding putting your lips together at the end. The letters behave like English letters when they come at the beginning of a word such as mesa (table) and nome (name).
The Letter X
Amazingly, there are four different sounds that could be uttered when this letter appears in Portuguese words. The first is similar to the English word “sheep.” Portuguese examples are xadrez (chess) and lixo (trash). The second sound is similar to the English word “fix,” as in the Portuguese complexo (complex). Thirdly, this letter can sound like a normal [s], as with the English word “feast.” Portuguese examples are excluir (to exclude) and excepcional (exceptional). Finally it is very common to hear a [z] sound as in the English word “amazing.” Portuguese examples are exótico (exotic) and roxo (purple).