"Última flor do Lácio, inculta e bela,
És, a um tempo, esplendor e sepultura." note
Portuguese is, at least in terms of native speakers, the seventh most spoken language in the world, the second most spoken Romance language, and the most spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s an Ibero-Romance language, and closely related to Spanish
Originally spoken in Portugal
, it spread throughout the world with the Portuguese Empire and is now the official language of nine different countries in four different continents, Portugal, Mozambique
, and Brazil
being the major Portuguese-speaking countries, the latter having more native Portuguese speakers than all the other countries combined. Being no small language, dialectal differences abound, the two main varieties being Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, each with their own sets of dialects themselves.
Portuguese nouns aren’t much more complicated than in English. They only inflect in number and gender, and that’s it. Plural formation is pretty straightforward, even though there are several plural endings (all of them involving the addition of an s
) the rules for them are very regular. The only exception are nouns ending in –ão
), which have three possible plural endings, but even those aren’t really that
Gender is a bit harder, but not as much as in some other languages, like German
. All nouns are either masculine or feminine, and guessing then might be a bit tricky. As rule of thumb, nouns ending in –o
) are masculine, and nouns ending in –a
) are feminine. For nouns with other endings, you mostly have to learn by heart. A good trick is to learn the noun with its definite article (o
being the masculine article, and a
the feminine), since it always agrees in gender with the noun; so a flor
(the flower) is feminine, and o amor
(love) is masculine.
Finally, many nouns denoting humans and some animals agree with the person or animal’s sex, so menino
(boy) is masculine and menina
(girl) is feminine, for example. Nevertheless some nouns denoting people and most nouns denoting animal species have fixed genders. The word criança
(child) is always feminine regardless of the child’s sex, and so is the word girafa
(giraffe). Also, when a noun denotes a group with masculine and feminine individuals, it takes the masculine gender. So os gatos
means either the (male) cats
or the (male and female) cats
, while as gatas
means only the (female) cats
They kind of behave similarly to English, but there are some notable differences. There’s also a great deal variation between dialects concerning their use. The main personal pronouns are:
- eu ~ I
- tu/você ~ you
- ele/ela ~ he/she/it
- nós/a gente ~ we
- vós/vocês ~ you (plural)
- eles/elas ~ they
As with most other Romance languages, subject pronouns are often omitted. Unlike other Romance languages, so are object pronouns. Brazilian Portuguese tends to omit subject pronouns much less often, while omitting objects more.
is the informal pronoun, the pronoun used when talking to friends and relatives, while você
is a semi-formal pronoun. That’s still true for most of the Portuguese-speaking world. However, several Brazilian dialects (though certainly not all) have dropped the pronoun tu
, and use você
(or a variation of it) even in completely informal situations. Typically, the “informal você
" dialects are mostly found in the Southeast and Midwest regions of Brazil, in the North, Northeast, and South, the pronoun tu
is still used a lot in informal situations.
As for the pronoun vós
, nowadays the only places where this pronoun is still used are parts of northern Portugal, although mostly by older people. Everywhere else, it has fallen out use, and the pronoun vocês
is used instead. It’s only used in extremely formal situations, for archaism, and in the church.
Portuguese also has a second set of treatment pronouns: o senhor
, for males, a senhora
for females, and their plural counterparts, os senhores
and as senhoras
. Those are more formal than você
, and are generally used when talking to older people, superiors, and teachers. These pronouns are rather tricky to use though, and some people might even be offended by them, so, in any case, sticking to você
might be the best choice whenever you feel uncertain.
Another interesting trend is using the noun phrase a gente
(literally, the people) with the meaning of we
. This is very similar to the way the pronoun on
is often used in French.
This class is by far the hardest to master for anyone studying Portuguese. A typical Portuguese verb can take the insane amount of about 50 different forms to indicate person, tense, mood, and aspect.
There are three conjugation classes, each one having quite a number of irregular verbs. The first verb conjugation is composed of verbs that have their infinitives ending in –ar
, the second is composed of verbs with –er endings, and the third is composed of infinitives ending in –ir
. To give you a glimpse of how conjugation works in Portuguese, here are three regular verbs corresponding to each conjugating class: cantar
(to sing), beber
(to drink), and partir
(to part), conjugated in the present tense of the indicative mood:
- eu: canto, bebo, parto
- tu: cantas, bebes, partes
- ele/ela/vocênote : canta, bebe, parte
- nós: cantamos, bebemos, partimos
- vós: cantais, bebeis, partis
- eles/elas/vocêsnote : cantam, bebem, partem
There are five true verb tenses, and if you were to count compound tenses too the list would probably go up to twenty. There are also up to four moods the Indicative (o Indicativo
), the Subjunctive (o Subjuntivo
), the Imperative (o Imperativo
), and Condicional (o Condicional
/Futuro do Pretérito
). All of that means that Portuguese verbs can carry a lot of information through conjugation alone. Let’s take a look at some of those pesky tenses and moods, shall we?
- Indicativo (Indicative):
- Presente (Present): Likely the most common tense, it’s pretty much the same as in English. Portuguese also has a continuous construction, which behaves similarly to the one found in English, but is not used as often. Ex: Eu compro um livro (I buy a book).
- Pretérito Perfeito (Simple Past): A past tense, it’s generally used when the action happened once in the past, or, as grammar books usually say, “an action that began in the past, and ended in the past”. It corresponds to both the Simple Past and the Perfect. Ex: Eu comprei um livro (I bought a book/I have bought a book).
- Pretérito Imperfeito (Imperfect Past): Another past tense, but with a different aspect. This tense is used for something that happened repeated times or continuously in the past. It’s sometimes translated into English as “used to X”. It may also, sometimes, correspond to the Past Continuous. Ex: Eu comprava um livro (I used to buy a book/I was buying a book).
- Futuro (Future): Nothing new, it refers to actions taking place in the future. Like in English, there are several ways of doing so, with slightly different meanings. About four of them, to be precise. One simple and two compound constructions. The simple future tense is rarely used in the spoken language, where the construction ir + infinitive is preferred. Ex: Eu comprarei um livro; eu hei de comprar um livro; eu irei comprar um livro; eu vou comprar um livro (I will buy a book; I shall buy a book; I am going to buy a book).
- Condicional/Futuro do Pretérito (Conditional): An interesting tense, it expresses an action that would or could happen if a certain condition were fulfilled. Sometimes it's considered a tense of the indicative, and sometimes a mood on its own. In some cases the Past Imperfect might, optionally, take its place. The equivalent in English would be the would + verb construction. Ex: Eu compraria um livro (I would buy a book).
- Mais-que-perfeito (Pluperfect): Identical to English, it expresses something that had already happened before another already mentioned action did. Like with the future tense, there are several ways of using the pluperfect in Portuguese, the simple form being virtually nonexistent in the spoken language, but very common in the literary language. The compound forms using “ter” and “haver” in the imperfect are much more common in everyday speech. Ex: Eu comprara um livro; eu tinha comprado um livro; eu havia comprado um livro (I had bought a book).
- Pretérito Perfeito Composto (Perfect... sort of): It looks structurally similar to the Perfect in English and Spanish, but it actually carries a very different meaning. It means an action that began and happened continuously the past, and continues to do so in the present, with the possibility of happening again in the future. Ex: Tem chovido muito (It's been raining a lot). note
- Subjuntivo/Conjuntivo (Subjunctive): English has only remains of a subjunctive mood, so it might be a bit hard to explain it. The subjunctive is used with things that aren’t exactly real, at least yet. That includes wishes, possibilities, etc. It’s much more complicated than, that actually. Subjunctive clauses are mostly introduced by que, se, or quando.
- Presente do Subjuntivo (Present Subjunctive): Used for subjunctive clauses in the present, and usually preceded by que. Ex: Ele quer que eu vá para a festa (He wants me to go to the party).
- Imperfeito do Subjuntivo (Imperfect Subjunctive): Like the above, but used for clauses completing sentences in the conditional, past, and imperfect. It’s introduced by se and que Ex: Ele queria que eu fosse para a festa (He wanted me to go to the party).
- Futuro do Subjuntivo (Future Subjunctive): This tense was created by the Ibero-Romance languages, it never existed in Latin, or in any other known European language, for that matter. Nowadays it’s pretty much dead in Spanish, but in Portuguese it’s very much alive and in use. It’s introduced by se and quando, and is used for subjunctive clauses in the future. Ex: Só irei para a festa se ele também for (I'm only going to the party if he goes too).
- Imperativo (Imperative): Like in English, it's used for orders or commands. The main difference here is that the imperative agrees in number and it may also indicate formality. Ex:Compra o livro! (informal)/Compre o livro! (formal) (Buy the book!)
- Infinitivo Pessoal (Personal Infinitive): This one is pretty much unique to Portuguese and one of its closest relatives, Galician; it's not found in any other Indo-European language. It's an infinitive that agrees in person with the subject. It has several uses, and it's possibly one of the trickiest elements of the Portuguese grammar. Ex: Ele pediu para ires para a festa (He asked you to go to the party).
This list is not at all exhaustive and mostly focuses on simple tenses. There’s still the Future Perfect, the Subjunctive Perfect, progressive constructions, etc. But the ones listed are some of the most common, so that’s it for now.
Last, but not least, agreement varies depending on the dialects. Most Brazilian dialects make no, or almost no, distinction between the second and third person verb forms, either because the pronoun tu
is simply not used, or because the second and the third-person singular verb forms have collapsed and now are either completely identical or mostly identical. So, while a Portuguese would say tu cantas
, most Brazilians would say either cênote canta
, or tu canta
, which explains why Brazilians use subject pronouns much more often, as it’s not always possible to guess the subject through the conjugation alone.
Spelling and Pronunciation
Spelling in Portuguese is much more logical than in English, thankfully, but not as simple as in Spanish. It’s quite easy to guess how a word should be pronounced just by reading it,if you know the rules. But it’s not necessarily as easy to guess how a word you heard should be written.
Portuguese has a pretty rich vowel inventory, at least for Romance languages. Not only that, but vowels differ greatly from dialect to dialect. So this list only provides a very broad overview.
- A: mostly like the a in father, but also like the a in amber, and the the u in duck in unstressed positions.
- E: also represents three sounds, the e in empty, the e in bed, and the ee in sleep.
- I: like the ee in sleep, and the y in you.
- O: also three sounds, the o in open, the oo in door, and the oo in ooze.
- U: two sounds, the oo in ooze, and the w in we.
Looks hard? It actually isn’t really that hard, the thing is that Portuguese relies heavily on vowel quality, which means vowels are pronounced differently depending on how stressed or accented they are. Vowels can be open, closed, or weak semi-vowels depending on their quality. Accent marks indicate the quality of the vowel, so a vowel with an acute accent, like ó, is open, while the circumflex, ô, indicates that the vowel is closed.
Portuguese also has nasal vowels, five of them. Those are pronounced by letting most of the air flow through your nose. It’s like humming, but with your mouth open. The nasal vowels are:
- Ã, AN, AM: the nasal counterpart to the a in father.
- EN, EM: the nasal counterpart to the e in empty.
- IN, IM: a nasal ee.
- Õ, ON, OM: the o in open, but nasalized.
- UM, UN: a nasal oo.
Ok, now let’s go to the consonants and digraphs. Some of them are pronounced the same as English, while others… Here we'll talk about the consonants that behave noticeably differently in Portuguese:
- C: sort of the same as in English. Before A, O, and U, it’s always pronounced like a K; before E and I, it’s always pronounced like an S.
- Ç: always sounds like the s in soup.
- CH: sounds like the digraph sh in English.
- D: the same as English. Many Brazilian dialects palatize this consonant before I or a weak E, the result being a sound like the English J. So, in these dialects the word dia (day) sounds like jeeah, instead of deeah.
- G: just like C, it has a hard and a soft pronunciation. Before A, O, and U, it’s pronounced like the g in great; before E and I, it sounds like the s in treasure.
- GU: It’s either pronounced as the g in gum, or as the gw in Gwen.
- H: it doesn’t represent any sound at all by itself, it’s a mute consonant, but it’s used to form many digraphs.
- J: it always sounds like the s in treasure.
- L: mostly like in English. However,in many Brazilian dialects, word-final L is rendered like a w, so the word sol (sun) is pronounced sohw. Also, many Brazilian dialects palatize this sound before I and a weak E, much like how it happens with D. The resulting sound is identical to…
- LH: a palatized L, it doesn’t really seem to exist in English. It’s pronounced by making an L sound while flatting the tip of the tongue against the palate.
- M: Just like in English... sort of. In syllable-final and word-final positions (ex: campo, bebem), it merely indicates that the preceding vowel is a nasal vowel, or nasal diphthong, and is not pronounced at all.
- N: Like in English. As with M, in the end of syllables (ex: dente) it only nasalizes the preceding vowel without being actually pronounced. Also, native Portuguese words, in general, never end with the letter N. Similarly to D and L, it’s palatized before I and weak E in many Brazilian dialects, resulting in a sound that is just like the Spanish Ñ, which in Portuguese is written...
- NH: this sound is the same as the ñ in Spanish, and doesn’t really seem to exist in English. In many Brazilian and African dialects it’s often pronounced like a nasalized form of the y in you.
- R: OK, this one will be a little lengthy. There are two “r sounds”, a “hard r” and a “soft r”. The “soft r” is pronounced like the way some English speakers pronounce the t in city, an alveolar tap, and it remains the same everywhere. The “hard r”, on the other hand, varies a lot from place to place, but originally it was pronounced like the trilled r in Spanish. That pronunciation can still be found in parts of Portugal and Brazil, but the most common “hard r’s” nowadays are pronounced in the back of the mouth or the throat. In Portugal this guttural r is usually very much like the French r, while in Brazil it tends to sound more like a stronger form of the English h. The letter R is pronounced as a soft r when it’s found between two vowels, as in hora (hour). The same pronunciation happens when the R is part of a consonant cluster, like the one found in the word pedra (stone). However, when the letter R is found in the beginning of a word (ex: rato, rat) and after the consonant N (ex: enredo, plot), it’s realized as a “hard r”. Word and syllable final R might be pronounced as either a “soft r” or as “a hard r”, depending on the dialect. Oddly enough, in a few Brazilian dialects, word and syllable-final R sounds just like the English r. Finally, Brazilian Portuguese in general tends to drop the R in the end of words.
- RR: always a “hard r”.
- S: Yet another complex consonant. Like with R, it’s pronounced differently depending on its position. In the beginning of words and after the consonant N it always sounds like the s in sea. When between vowels it’s realized as a z. In word and syllable-final positions, it varies depending on the dialect. Many pronounce it as the sh in ash, while others, mostly in Brazil, pronounce it as expected, like an s.
- SS: always like the s in sea.
- T: It’s mostly the same as in English. However, several Brazilian dialects pronounce it as the ch in change when it precedes I and a weak E, so tia (aunt) sounds like cheeah, instead of teeah.
- X: has several possible pronunciations. It can sound like the x in exit, like an s, like a z, and like a sh. The best part? There’s no way of guessing how to pronounce it, you have to learn every individual case by heart.
- Z: it mostly behaves identically to the z in English. Only one thing, in syllable and word-final positions, it behaves just like S.
Pronunciation tips: diacritics and those nasal vowels.
Diacritic marks are those little things placed on top of some vowels. Portuguese has four diacritics, two accent marks, the tilde, and the grave. Let’s start with the accents. Just like in Spanish, Portuguese accents indicate the stressed vowel; they are the circumflex ô
, and the acute ó
. Those accent marks do more than just that, though. They also serve to tell you the quality of the marked vowel, particularly in the case of the letters E and O. The circumflex indicates a closed vowel, while he acute indicates an open vowel. This distinction in vowel quality may be the only difference between two words, like the case with avó
(grandmother) and avô
(grandfather). The open E is pronounced like the e in bed
, while the closed E sounds a little like the ay in say
. As for the open O, it sounds like the o in soft
, while the closed O sounds like the o in open
Nasal vowels are one of the biggest issues foreigners have with speaking Portuguese. And they are very common. There are several ways of noticing a nasal vowel. An N or M in word and syllable-final positions indicates that the preceding vowel is nasal (ex: antes, amplo, onça
; before, wide, jaguar). Nasal diphthongs are also widespread, and they are indicated by an M in word-final position (ex: andam, homem
; they walk, man). Those diphthongs are pronounced like nasalized forms of the English diphthongs aw and ay. But M and N are not the only forms of marking a nasal vowel. That’s were the tilde comes in. This little thing here “~”. The tilde was originally a small N written above a letter, but it has since then evolved into a diacritic on itself. In Portuguese, it’s only found above the vowels A, and O. It’s pretty straight forward, a tilde indicates that the vowel is nasal, and that's it. Also, the tilde is usually placed on the stressed syllable, so if there’s no accent mark, but there’s a tilde, you can bet the stressed syllable is with the tilde.
Last but not least, there’s the grave, or “`” . It’s only placed above the letter A, and it indicates a contraction with the preposition a
. Like in English, Portuguese relies heavily on prepositions, since there’s no case marking on the nouns themselves, but unlike English, Portuguese contracts prepositions with articles and some pronouns extensively
. The grave accent is used to indicate a contraction between the preposition a
and an article or pronoun that begins with A. So the word àquela
, is a + aquela
, (to + that one). In Brazilian Portuguese there’s no difference in pronunciation between à and a; both sound like the a in father
. European Portuguese, however, does distinguish them; à
sounds like the a in father
, while a
sounds a little like the u
There’s actually another diacritic, the diaresis, the two little dots above ü
. It was used in the digraphs qu and gu, to mark that the u was to be pronounced. The diaresis has fallen out of use though, so, on the good side it’s one less diacritic. On the bad side, you have to learn every case independently if you want to know when the u is pronounced and when it’s not.
European and Brazilian Portuguese
Portuguese is one of those multinational languages, so a significant amount of regional variation is to be expected. The same happens with Spanish and English, each with a myriad of dialects. In Portuguese, the main varieties are Brazilian Portuguese, and European Portuguese.
However, the distance between BR and EU Portuguese can't really be compared to that between English and Spanish dialects. While their standard grammars are indeed very similar, their spoken varieties can, and do, differ quite a lot
. This has made some linguists conclude that Br-Pt and Eu-Pt may have even become different languages already, even if closely related ones. While that view isn't held by everyone, it's become increasingly more common over time. It's also a very, very
heated topic for some, and a common source for Flame Wars
, so it's better not to dwell in it for too long.
In any case, the fact remains that both varieties are quite distinct. Eu-Pt tends to be more conservative in its grammar, while Br-Pt tends to be more conservative in it's phonology. Those differences are somewhat disguised by the standard grammars of both countries, which are still very similar, since they're both based on European Portuguese. The problem arises when people start speaking. Despite Standard Brazilian Portuguese being based on Eu-Pt, it's spoken form, known by some as Vernacular Brazilian, is a direct descendent of the Portuguese introduced in South America hundreds of years ago. The result? Well, it's simply impossible to say the sentence "I love her", in a way that fits both the standard, and the spoken language. A Brazilian would say "Eu amo ela
" which is wrong according to the standard, where a more correct choice would be "Eu a amo
" or "Eu amo-a
"(Which is the preferred choice in European Portuguese). Nevertheless, the "wrong" sentence is well accepted in the spoken language. It would only be considered incorrect in a much more formal context, or in the written language.
Both varieties also differ greatly in phonetics, which is probably one of the reasons why most Brazilians have trouble understanding Portuguese people, but it certainly also helps that Brazilians have almost zero contact with Eu-Pt. The Portuguese, however, are very much used to Br-Pt, since Brazilian soup operas and musicians are quite popular in Portugal. Consequently, Portuguese people don't have much difficulty in understanding Brazilians.
Lastly, they also at the very least used
to have different orthographies. In 1990, a treaty was signed by the Portuguese Speaking countries in order to create an unified orthography. Until then, there were two different orthographies. One used by Brazil, and one used by everyone else. The new, unified, orthography was indeed created, but it's still not widely accepted. Many people still oppose it, claiming that such a goal is not even possible, while others think it's brilliant. Whether the Orthographic Agreement will be successful or not, it remains to be seen. For now, it's yet another heated topic.