Brazilian Portuguese Accent Marks — the Good, the Bad, and the Simple
In a perfect world, you would never need to learn what the Brazilian Portuguese accent marks do. You would just write an accent-less language that everyone would understand.
But the world isn’t perfect, is it?
You need to understand what the accent marks do in Portuguese. But you don’t need to become an expert in it.
Unless you are teaching Portuguese. In this case it would be perfectly justifiable.
But in that case all you need is a working knowledge of some rules and patterns. Armed with that, you can read Portuguese quite fine, distinguish between seemingly similar words, and pronounce them with more confidence.
A few concepts you need to know – Sílaba Tônica.
Different from what happens in English, Portuguese has clear-cut rules for syllables.
You must have a vowel as the center of your syllable. Not all consonants go together, and the letters that come after vowels are predictable if they are in the same consonants.
And at least in Brazilian Portuguese, you must sound out every syllable clearly.
But it doesn’t mean you can just say it monotonously, either like a machine gun or water dripping from the faucet. You have to push down on some syllables.
The syllable you push down on is called “tonic syllable”, or sílaba tônica in Portuguese. In Linguistics, this is the stressed syllable.
In Portuguese, the second-to-last syllable usually takes the hit. That’s the usual position you would expect the tonic syllable to be if there were no graphical indications (the accent marks).
That’s why any competent speaker of the language can read the following words even if they don’t know what they mean.
The second to last syllable is the strong one.
And depending on the stressed syllable, the meaning changes.
- sábia [wise woman] and sabiá [song-thrush]
- Para [preposition for] and Pará [a Brazilian state]
Now, let’s throw in a few terms and specialized nomenclature…
Depending on where the strong syllable is, the word gets a different classification.
This is something kids learn in school and forget it by the time they graduate. But these concepts come back to haunt us like all good memories we can’t relive.
You need to know this too, but you don’t have to understand it in detail. Just know it exists. It will help you when you come across a word you don’t know.
- Oxítona: the strong syllable is the last one. Examples: café, urubu, Canadá.
- Paroxítona: the strong syllable is the second to last one. Examples: Bola, bolo, cachorro.
- Proparoxítona: the strong syllable is the antepenultimate one (before the second to last one). Examples: Médico.
And why are these concepts important?
The accent marks in Brazilian Portuguese show that the stressed syllable isn’t what you would expect.
So, if there is no accent mark indicating what syllable to push down on, you know it’s the second to last one.
And this is important. If you remember this whenever you’re reading something or come across a new word, you’ll know how to ask about it.
And some rules – which are beyond the scope of this short guide – require that you know what a word is to decide whether an accent mark would be appropriate or not.
The Proparoxítona words are your friend!
All words that fall into this category have accent marks. There are no exceptions.
Now that we got these concepts out of the way we can look into the accents and their pronunciations more closely.
The acute mark [á]
In Portuguese, it has a different name — acento agudo.
The acute accent can happen on any vowel in Portuguese.
What it indicates is that this vowel is pronounced very open.
If it’s placed on an a, it’s as if a dentist told you to open your mouth and say Ah.
If it’s placed on an E, should pronounce it with her mouth somewhat tense.
If the recordings alone don’t help, here are some approximations of sounds of the English language.
- Á – like the A in father
- É – like the E in Met
- Í – like the EE in Meet.
- Ó – like the AW in Law.
- Ú – like the U in Protrude.
But keep in mind that these are approximations. Especially with the pronunciation of Ó and É, the word I chose can be somewhat misleading depending on where you are. I am mostly referring to the American English pronunciation Brazilians learn when studying English in Brazil.
- sofá — sofa, couch
- parabéns — congratulations
- jacaré — alligator
- açaí — Açai
- Piauí — a Brazilian state
- baú — chest (like the treasure chest)
- fácil — easy
- vírus — virus
- sótão — attic
- túnel — tunnel
- plástico — plastic
- gráfico — graphic
- líquido — liquid
- próximo — close, next
- público — public
The circumflex mark [â]
The circumflex accent is called (drumroll) acento circunflexo in Portuguese. Or just “circunflexo” — and that’s a mouthful.
Insert text herMany Brazilians refer to this accent as “o chapeuzinho” (the little hat). That’s how we usually learn its name in elementary school.e.
The circumflex accent mark in Portuguese happens in only three vowels: Â, Ê, and Ô.
It changes the pronunciation of an otherwise open vowel into a closed vowel.
Closed vowels are pronounced with your mouth and jaw relaxed and more closed. But you know, it’s hard to notice the different sounds… in writing.
That’s why I have here the formidable pair of cumbersome words avô and avó, the Portuguese words for “grandfather” and “grandmother” respectively.
Notice how it changes.
Again, it will require more practice for you to distinguish between those two sounds.
- Avô — grandfather
- Cocô — poop
- Alô — hello
- Pavê — a kind of Brazilian dessert
- Maitê — a female name
- Ambulância — ambulance
- Lâmpada — lamp
The grave mark [à] (and crase)
This accent tends to humiliate Brazilians. Although it’s widely used in writing, it has no practical effect on speaking.
In Portugal, they still perceive the difference between the sound A with the grave mark and without it. But in Brazil this difference is long gone.
The grave mark only happens when you have the combination of the preposition “a” (“to”) and the definite feminine article or the demonstrative pronoun aquele and its variants.
Whenever this accent mark happens in Portuguese, we call the phenomenon crase. And the accent mark itself is called “acento grave” (grave accent mark). But because we don’t really know the rules, it stands to reason we wouldn’t know its name either.
If you want to know whether you need to use the grave accent mark, you can use this simple test.
Let’s say you have the following sentence in Portuguese
- Eu vou a China. I go to China.
Then you want to know if you need the grave accent mark.
Replace the feminine noun with a masculine noun.
- Eu vou ao Brasil. I go to Brazil.
If a turns into ao, then you can use the grave accent mark in the feminine word.
But if you want to use this trick reliably, you need to familiarize yourself with more words and written Portuguese.
The tilde [ã]
The tilde is my favorite accent mark in Portuguese.
First, its portuguese name is “til”, which sounds like “tio” (uncle).
Second, when I was a kid, I remember people used to call it “cobrinha” (little snake). But as I grew up I saw it was no snake.
It was actually a smashed “N”.
Apparently, it was invented to save parchment when scribes and copyists would write words with double N like annum (a short article by ThoughtCo).
In Spanish, the ñ form survived. But in Portuguese, it died.
In fact, what we have in Portuguese are vowels with a tilde. And it indicates that the pronunciation is nasal.
Very, very nasal.
- Mãe — mother
- Capitão — captain
- Coração — heart
- Tubarão — shark
- Ilusão — illusion
- Órfão — orphan
- Sótão — attic
- Cristão — Christian
And just before we forget: you’ll see the tilde in two vowels only — ã and õ.
Remember that I said above that the accent marks in Portuguese indicate which syllable to push down on? Well, that’s not always the case with the tilde.
Some words, like órfão (orphan) and órgão (organ) have both a tilde and an acute accent mark. The syllable with the acute accent is the strong one, whereas the syllable with the tilde is just nasal.
Is the cedilla an accent mark in Portuguese?
Technically, yes. But it’s a different one. It’s a diacritic that only happens in one consonant — C — and its only function is to show that this C is pronounced like the S in Sun.
This is confusing even for native speakers. Some words sound the same, but they’re written differently.
- Caçar [to hunt] — cassar [to abrogate]
- Aço [steel] — asso [I bake]
Oh, by the way, in Portuguese it’s called “Cedilha,” and it’s only the little tail that has this name. When spelling, many Brazilians say “cê cedilha” (C cedilla) to make it clear it has a cedilla.
Only one accent per word?
As you have seen when we were talking about the tilde, words in Portuguese can have more than one accent mark. But they can have only one accent that indicates a stressed syllable.
And there can be only one stressed syllable per word.
But if you read old Brazilian Portuguese texts, you’ll see that sometimes words have two accents.
It was a thing to show that certain words had a primary accent and a secondary accent, usually to indicate whether the secondary strong syllable was open or not. But it no longer exists.
Do people drop accent marks with proper names?
My first name is Luis.
According to the usage rules in Brazilian Portuguese, the “I” should have an acute accent mark (Luís). And that happens because my name actually has two syllables — Lu – is. With no accent, it becomes a one-syllable word.
But people never pronounce it wrong.
There isn’t consistency in accent mark usage when it comes to spelling proper names. So it’s okay if you sometimes forget how to spell your friends’ name and whether it has an accent mark or not.
How to type Portuguese accent marks on your keyboard?
If you are writing to your friends on WhatsApp, don’t worry about proper accent usage. Communication on WhatsApp is meant to be fast. Most of the time Brazilians simplify the way they write so that they can write faster.
But if you are writing a report for a class then you might want to enable the Portuguese keyboard on your computer.
But if you are typing in Portuguese only occasionally and need to use the accents in very specific situations, I suggest you use the online keyboard offered by Lexilogos (click here).
Not very convenient if on your smartphone, but quite useful for shorter typing sessions where accuracy is important.
And although the Brazilian Portuguese accent marks are important, don’t sweat.
I don’t mean you can simply ignore them.
But the more familiar you become with the language, the better you’ll understand how to use the accents.
What’s more, punctuation tends to be more important. It’s even the subject of a course I produced. If you want to write and read Portuguese properly, you’d be better off learning how to punctuate your sentences.
Now, I’d like to know: as for Brazilian Portuguese accent marks, what has your experience been like? Has it been easy? Hard? Let me know in the comments below.