Spanish and Portuguese Vowels

Foreign Service Institute: From Spanish to Portuguese

In this section we will compare the sounds of Spanish with the sounds of Portuguese. We will illustrate our comments with cognates in order to help you transfer vocabulary items from Spanish into Portuguese.

Spanish Vowels with Counterparts in Portuguese

You will recall that Spanish has just five vowels, a, e, i, o and u. These same five familiar vowel sounds, pronounced essentially as you know them in Spanish, occur frequently in Portuguese, but they are interspersed with seven additional vowel sounds, new ones that do not exist in Spanish. The existence of these seven additional vowels and their several diphthongs means that you must now learn to operate within a more extensive vowel system. It also means that you will have to exercise considerable caution in transferring the five Spanish vowels, particularly in cognates. You cannot do so as freely as you would like, as you will discover on these pages.

In addition to accommodating yourself to the seven new vowels, you will also need to learn to handle some very common variations of the familiar a, e and o. These variations occur for the most part when these vowels occur at the ends of words and are unstressed. We discuss each of these in turn below.

1. Spanish /a/ vs. Portuguese /ə/

The Portuguese a has a special variant, not occurring in Spanish, which will probably cause you some problems during your early days of study. We will arbitrarily elect to write this variant for the moment like this: ə. It is similar to a common English vowel sound, the sort of lax, neutral 'uh'-type sound that you and all native-speakers of English say in the final, weakstressed syllable of words like 'sofa', 'comma', 'Anna', when you utter these words in a normal, unaffected way. In your early days of learning Spanish you had to break away from this comfortable English habit and force yourself not to use this sound in the final, weak-stressed syllable of Spanish words. You had to learn to say a, and not ə, in the last syllable of casa, toma, señoras, ganan, and many other words.

Now, in Portuguese, you will find that this sound does occur, and with great frequency, in final, weak-stressed syllables. For example, you will hear it in the last syllable of portuguese casa, toma, senhoras, which is precisely where you learned not to use it in the corresponding Spanish words. It will be in just such easily recognizable portuguese/Spanish cognate words as these, where the final unstressed vowel in Spanish is /a/, that you will need to be particularly careful to use the Portuguese /ə/. It requires a bit of undoing of a familiar and comfortable pattern. Below are a few cases in point.

Spanish Portuguese
casa casa
señoras senhoras
para para
días dias
ahora agora
nada nada
cabeza cabeça
toma toma


Of course the ə occurs in the final, weak-stressed syllable of many non-cognate words as well. Here, too, you will have to resist the tendency to use a Spanish a.


lt is interesting to note that in European Portuguese and in the rapid speech of some Brazilians there is a definite tendency to pass over this sound very lightly, sometimes to the point of dropping it.

The a is also heard in stressed syllables when the following syllable begins with m, n or nh sound. In these cases the ə is slightly nasalized. Once again, interference from familiar, cognate Spanish words is likely to be a problem.

Spanish Portuguese
vamos vamos
cama cama
baño banho
gano ganho
Ana Ana


The differences between Spanish a and Portuguese ə may not seem very great, but it is on just such small differences as these - hundreds of them - that Spanish and Portuguese are distinguishable as two separate languages.

Merely as an indication of the considerable frequency with which you will need to perform this a to ə change, we have tabulated its presence below in some very basic, hence constantly recurring, grammatical features of the two languages.


Frequency check: Spanish a / Portuguese ə

The Spanish unstressed a sound marks many feminine nouns and their agreeing adjectives (casa bonita, etc.), the third person singular present tense of -ar verbs (manda, vuela, etc.), and the singular subjunctives of -er and -ir verbs (viva, sepa, etc.). In Portuguese, you will find ə in these positions.

  Spanish Portuguese English
Nouns casa casa house
  señoras senhoras ma'am
  para para for
  días dias day
Adjectives bonita bonita pretty
  cara cara dear
Verbs toma toma takes
3rd person singular manda manda sends
present -ar verbs trabaja trabalha works
singular subjunctive aprenda aprenda learn(s)
-er and -ir verbs coma coma eat(s)


2. Spanish unstressed o and e / Portuguese unstressed u and i

Spanish very commonly ends a word with an unstressed o or an unstressed e sound (como, baño, sale, vive, etc.) Since you are accustomed to using these two sounds at the ends of words in Spanish you will find that you will want to use them in this position in Portuguese, too, especially if you are dealing with cognates. In very careful, overly precise speech a Portuguese speaker may occasionally end words with the unstressed o and e sounds of his own language, but in normal, everyday speech he will always use u and i sounds, respectively, instead. These two features of Portuguese speech will be among the first to strike your ears. The frequency check presented below will indicate how often you will be required to focus on them.

Frequency check: Spanish /o/ - Portuguese /u/

In Spanish the unstressed o sound marks many masculine nouns and their agreeing adjectives (carro viejo, etc.) as well as the first person singular, present tense of most verbs (tengo, llevo, etc.) In Portuguese, these functions are taken over by the unstressed u sound (which, nonetheless, is written o in standard spelling). Observe the change in the examples shown below, all cognates.

  Spanish Portuguese English
Nouns carro carro car
  centro centro center
  estados estados states
  libros livros books
Adjectives cuatro quatro four
  famoso famoso famous
  bonitos bonitos pretty
  caros caros dear
Verbs tomo tomo I take
1st person singular llevo levo I carry
present tense tengo tenho I have
  vivo vivo I live


Frequency check: Spanish /e/ - Portuguese /i/

In Spanish, an unstressed e sound marks the 3rd person singular of most -er and -ir verbs (aprende, sale, etc.), and the singular subjunctive of most -ar verbs (mande, trabaje, etc.). It also occurs frequently as the last vowel in nouns and adjectives (hombre grande, billete verde), etc.

In Portuguese these functions are assumed by the unstressed i sound (which, nonetheless, is written e in standard spelling, just as it is in Spanish). Compare these sample cognates.

  Spanish Portuguese
Verbs aprende aprende
3rd person singular abre abre
-er and -ir verbs mueve move
present tense cabe cabe

singular subjunctive

hable fale
-ar verbs mande mande
  pase passe
Adjectives grande grande
  verde verde
  ese esse
Nouns base base
  noche noite
  tarde tarde
  billete bilhete


The shift from Spanish unstressed e to Portuguese unstressed i is evident elsewhere too. For example, many Portuguese speakers have the initial unstressed syllables is- and dis- where your Spanish experience would lead you to expect the unstressed es- and des-.

Spanish Portuguese
esperar esperar
estar estar
esposo esposo
escribir escrever
descuido descuido
desdén desdém
destino destino


Portuguese Vowels Not Occurring in Spanish

Portuguese has seven vowels that do not occur in Spanish. For examination purposes we can divide these new vowels into two groups: oral vowels and nasal vowels.

1. Oral Vowels

We will look at the new oral vowels first. There are two of them.

A. The oral vowel 'open' e

This vowel is somewhat similar to the vowel in the English words bet and set. To produce it, one must have a somewhat larger opening between the tongue and the roof of the mouth than one needs to produce the e. Perhaps for this reason it is sometimes referred to as the 'open' e, in contrast to the e, which in turn may be called 'closed'. Be careful, however, not to think of 'open' e as just a variation of the Portuguese e. It is another vowel altogether, as different from e as a is from o. Notice the difference the 'open' e makes in the following pairs of words.


with closed e   with open e  
êste this este east
sêlo stamp selo I seal / stamp
gêlo ice gelo I freeze
cêrro hill cerro I close
sêde thirst sede headquarters
sexta sixth sesta nap / siesta


Inevitably some interference will arise out of the necessity of accommodating two vowel sounds in an area where you are used to dealing with only one. This will be a problem in the case of brand new, non-cognate words. It will be even more of a problem in the case of cognates. Many Spanish words with e (which we may consider closed) will show up in Portuguese with the open e. Among these are Spanish words ending in stressed -el.

Spanish Portuguese
papel papel
pincel pincel
hotel hotel


In most cases, though, you will find it difficult to predict whether you will find a closed e or an open e in the Portuguese word. Check these examples:

closed e
closed e
open e
pelo pelo  
mesa mesa  
pena pena  
pelar pelar  
tenaz tenaz  
menos menos  
mero   mero
sede   sede
bella   bela
ella   ela
es   é
cero   zero
flecha   flecha


Let us look at this open e in another environment. You remember that Spanish has a lot of words containing the diphthong ie. Most of these (a rough estimate would put the figure at 95 per cent) show up in Portuguese with the open vowel e. Although this change may be annoying to you because of the interference factor, you will find that it is a very useful device to keep in mind, simply because it is applicable to so many words. We are listing just a few of them here.

Spanish Portuguese
siete sete
ciego cego
piedra pedra
piel pele
miel mel
tierra terra
pierde perde
fiesta festa
diez dez


If Spanish ie is followed by n or m in the sarne syllable, as in siempre, the vowel in the Portuguese cognate word will most likely be the nasal vowel ẽ. It will not be the open e.

B. The oral vowel 'open' o

The other new oral vowel is 'open' o. Once again we can apply the term 'open' to refer to the fact that there is more space - more of an 'opening'- between tongue and roof of mouth for this vowel than for the closed o. The 'closed' o is very similar to the Spanish o.

The closed o and open o are quite different and quite separate vowels in Portuguese. Here are several pairs of words which will illustrate this.


with closed o   with open o  
avô grandfather avó grandmother
côro chorus coro I blush
almôço lunch almoço I eat lunch
gôsto taste gosto I like
poço well posso I can


Just as you will have some trouble learning the distribution of closed and open e, so you will also have trouble learning the distribution of closed and open o. When is it one and when is it the other? Again, the answer seems to be: Take each word as it comes along, and learn it. Of course, your well-established habit of saying a closed Spanish o will tempt you to carry this sound over into Portuguese too, particularly in cognates. In the case of some cognates, you will be right, as these examples show.

Spanish closed o Portuguese closed o
gota gôta
boca bôca
mozo môço
como como
boba boba
popular popular
noticia notícia


But in the case of many other cognates you will have to switch to the open O, as the following examples show.

Spanish closed o Portuguese open o
nota nota
moda moda
norte norte
obvio óbvio
bota bota


As you can see, there does not appear to be any pattern you can follow.

Spanish has a large number of words that contain the diphthong ue. Many, but not all, of these show up in Portuguese with the open o.

Spanish Portuguese
fuerte forte
luego logo
cuerda corda
puerta porta
nueve nove
rueda roda
muerte morte
escuela escola
puede pode
suelo solo


Spanish puerto and hueso, however, show up as porto and osso, both containing the closed o. So you will have to be careful not to assume that every Spanish ue will turn out to be an open o in Portuguese. It is, nonetheless, a good rule of thumb. And, if the Spanish ue is followed by an m or n in the sarne syllable, as in cuenta, the Portuguese cognate will most likely have the nasal vowel õ, as in cõta.

For additional occurrences of both the open o and open e sounds see the sub-division on 'Irregular Verb Forms.'

2. Nasal Vowels

You know, of course, that Spanish has no such thing as a nasal vowel. Nor does English, for that matter. So the process of pronouncing a vowel 'through your nose', as the saying goes, may be new to you. Rest assured, though, that it is not a particularly difficult thing for most people to learn to do.

Portuguese has five nasal vowels. They are: ẽ ĩ õ ũ and ə̃

In standard spelling, nasal vowels are frequently signalled by the presence of an m or n after the vowel in the same syllable, as in vendo, sim, bom, ums, and banda. In addition, the tilde designates many õ and ə̃ sounds (the latter being written ã).

It is important to remember that these nasal vowels are not mere variations of their non-nasal, or oral, counterparts. They are completely different vowels, every bit as distinct from the non-nasals as a is from o and as i is from u.

The nasal vowels show up frequently in easily recognizable Spanish/Portuguese cognate words. In the Spanish version of these words, you first pronounce the vowel, then you pronounce an m or n sound. In Portuguese, however, you simply nasalize the vowel. That's all. You do not pronounce an m or an n. If you do, nobody will have any trouble understanding you, but your Portuguese will be more Spanish than you should want it to be. Be alert then to the changes you will have to make in such cognate items as the following:


Spanish a Portuguese nasal ə̃
cuando quando
cuanto quanto
banco banco
cantar cantar
mandar mandar
andando andando
(and other -ndo forms of -ar verbs)
Spanish e Portuguese nasal ẽ
senda senda
vencer vencer
mentir mentir
vender vender
aprendiendo aprendendo
(and other -ndo forms of -er verbs)
Spanish i Portuguese nasal ĩ
fin fim
pintar pintar
insulto insulto
importante importante
dirigiendo dirigindo
(and other -ndo forms of -ir verbs)
Spanish o Portuguese nasal õ
responder responder
montaña montanha
donde onde
onza onça
onda onda
Spanish u Portuguese nasal ũ
fundar fundar
tumba tumba
mundo mundo

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