Phonology of the Portuguese language in Brazil

by Bruno Oliveira Maroneze


The Portuguese language became the official language of the Portuguese Empire, which, by the year 1600, included large territorial areas in South America and Africa. Due to historical and linguistic factors, the language spoken in the portuguese territories in South America (Brazil) differentiated from the European Portuguese, in all linguistic aspects: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, etc., to the point of some linguists saying that Brazilians are already speaking another language.

This small text tries to describe the differences between Brazilian Portuguese (BP) and European Portuguese (EP) phonetics and phonology.

The Lusitanization of Brazilian territory

The occupation of Brazil started at 1532, with the distribution of the fifteen first hereditary capitanies. Although historical documents point to an equilibrium between the geographic precedence of the settlers (from North and South of Portugal), linguistic factors point to a predominance of settlers from the South of Portugal: the Brazilian pronunciation of [s] is pre-dorso-dental, like that of Meridional EP; in the North, [s] is apico-alveolar; and BP distinguishes between [b] and [v], unlike Northern EP. But this can be explained by the fact that both Brazil and South of Portugal are areas of colonisation (South of Portugal was colonised after the Reconquista).

Main Phonetic Differences
between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese

Brazilian Portuguese conserves some phonetic traits that European Portuguese changed, and vice versa.

Conservative aspects of Brazilian Portuguese

  1. In EP, the implosive [s] and [z] are pronounced as palatal [] and []: vista is pronounced ['vita], mesmo is pronounced ['memu]. This is an innovation of EP that occurred at the 18th century. In BP, these words are pronounced ['vista] and ['mezmu]. In Rio de Janeiro and in some other zones of Brazilian coast, the EP pronunciation may be found; this is probably due to the relusitanisation occurred at 1808, with the coming of the Portuguese Royal Family.
  2. The non-stressed final vowels which are spelled e and o are pronounced in EP [] and [u], but in BP they are pronounced [i] and [u]. For example, passe is pronounced ['pas] in EP, but ['pasi] in BP. This is clearly a trait conserved by BP, because Luís Antônio Verney, in Verdadeiro Método de Estudar (1746) tells that the Portuguese pronounce ("incorrectly", he says) e and o like [i] and [u]. This also occurs with the non-stressed final a: it is pronounced [] in EP, but [a] in BP, although shorter than the stressed a. For example: passa is pronounced ['pasa] in BP, but ['pas] in EP.
  3. The non-stressed non-final vowels [e] and [o] are pronounced [] and [u] in EP, and [e] and [o] in BP (see also item 6). For example, meter and morar are pronounced [m'te] and [mu'a] in EP, but [me'te] and [mo'ra] in BP. (1) The same occurs with a: it is pronounced [] in EP, and [a] in BP (cadeira is pronounced [k'dj] in EP and [ka'dea] in BP). In BP, there are also some words that can be pronounced either with [u] or [o], either with [e] or [i]: [me'ninu] or [mi'ninu] (for menino), [ku'stumi] or [ko'stumi] for costume.
  4. The diphthong spelled ei is pronounced [j] in EP, but [ej] in BP. This also occurs when the diphthong is nasal (tem is pronounced [tj] in EP and [tj]  in BP). But even in EP, this pronunciation is geographically marked, and is a very recent innovation. In both variants of the language there is sometimes a reduction of [ej] to [e]: (2) brasileiro is pronounced [bazi'leu] (rarely [bazi'leju]) in BP. But there are words that don't suffer this reduction: peito and lei, for example, are pronounced [pejtu] and [lej] in BP. Nowadays, this phenomenon is receiving more attention.
Innovative aspects of Brazilian Portuguese
  1. BP neutralised the oppositions between [e] and [], [o] and [] and [a] and [] before nasal consonants. In BP, pena and vênia are pronounced with a stressed [e], but in EP vénia (written with é to mark this difference) is pronounced with a stressed [], while pena has an [e]. In EP, the fist-conjugation verbs have an important distinction unknown in BP: in BP, the first person plural is identical in the present and in the perfect tenses (cantamos, with a stressed nasal []), while EP differentiates between them (cantamos with [] is the present tense, while cantámos with [a] is the perfect tense).
  2. EP makes distinctions between non-stressed, non-initial mid-open and mid-close a, e and o. For example, cadeira is pronounced [k'dj] and padeira is pronounced [pa'dj]; pregar ("to nail") is pronounced [p'ga] (originally with [e], but see item 3), while pregar (to preach) is pronounced [pE'ga]; morar is pronounced [mu'a] (originally with [o], but see item 3) and corar is pronounced [k'a]. These distinctions have etymological explanations, but BP neutralised them. This is important because EP distinguishes phonologically the feminine article a [] from the contraction "preposition a + article a" [a], spelled à. For example, in EP a mesa ("the table") is pronounced ['mez], while à mesa ("to the table", "at the table") is pronounced [a'mez]. BP pronounces both the same form, [a'meza].
  3. In BP, the group stressed vowel + [s] or [z] (or [] or [] in Rio de Janeiro) is sometimes pronounced stressed vowel + [js] or [jz]: atrás is pronounced [a'trajs], luz is pronounced [lujs]. Some linguists believe that this is due to the palatal pronunciation of [s] (in Rio de Janeiro), but this also occurs in zones in which the palatal pronunciation is unknown.
  4. In BP, the lateral palatal [], spelled lh (the same sound spelled ll in Spanish) is pronounced [j] in some dialects and by some non-scholarised speakers: filho is pronounced ['fiju].
  5. In EP, the syllable-final [l] is pronounced like a velar []: Brasil is pronounced [b'zi], alto is pronounced ['atu]. But in BP, this sound is pronounced [w]: [ba'ziw], ['awtu]. As such, there is no distinction between mau "bad" and mal "badly". In some dialects, the word-final l is completely eliminated (general is pronounced [gene'a]. There is also the dialectal phenomenon of rhotacism [l] => []: alto ['atu] or ['atu], mal [ma] or [ma]. In these dialects, the opposition between mau and mal, for example, is conserved.
  6. In the groups [ti] and [di], the plosives [t] and [d] are palatalised in BP (in most, but not all dialects): tio is pronounced ['tjiu], or even ['tiu]; dito is pronounced ['djitu], or even [ditu].
  7. In BP, some consonant clusters in erudite words are eliminated by an epenthetic vowel ([i], sometimes [e]): ritmo is pronounced ['xitjimu], advogado is pronounced [adjivo'gadu] or [adevo'gadu].
  8. In EP, the syllable-final r is pronounced [], as when occurs between vowels: the r in arma is identical to the r in paro; the rr and the initial r are pronounced as [x] or as []. In BP, this consonant is sometimes eliminated word-finally (specially in verbs): doutor is pronounced [do'to], fazer is pronounced [fa'ze]. When it occurs syllable-finally, but not word-finally, it may be pronounced as [] or as [x], depending mainly on the dialect. Sometimes the initial r, the middle-vowel rr and the syllable-final r are pronounced as [h]. (3)

Bibliographical References

© 2001  Written for Orbis Latinus by Bruno Oliveira Maroneze.

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