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Two Worlds, One Language: Unveiling the Differences Between European and Brazilian Portuguese

You are probably aware that there are two well-established standards of Portuguese – the European and the Brazilian. Most language learners, though, don’t know much about their differences.

So, how different are European and Brazilian Portuguese? Can native speakers on either side understand one another?

In general, European and Brazilian Portuguese are mutually intelligible. While there are subtle variations in grammar, vocab preferences, and spelling between the two standards, pronunciation is what differs the most. Nonetheless, those differences don’t hinder, in any substantial way, mutual intelligibility. 

Let’s dive in.

It goes without saying …

This binary classification of Portuguese standards is a generalization.

Portuguese is also spoken elsewhere: in African countries such as Angola, Guinea-Bissauor Mozambique, and even in some parts of Asia and Oceania.

Due to a longer period under Portugal’s colonial presence, the dialects spoken in African countries are closer to the European standard and are normally included in that category. However, these African variants of Portuguese have been evolving rapidly in the post-colonial era, and we have yet to see how Portuguese standards will be categorized in the future.

First impressions

Let’s get a sense of how Brazilian and European Portuguese look and sound in their written and spoken forms.

Below, there’s a passage from Paulo Coelho’s book O Alquimista, originally written in Brazilian Portuguese. I wrote a slightly different version by making small adjustments (marked in bold) to make it conform to the European standard:

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European Portuguese

Levantou-se e bebeu um gole de vinho. Depois pegou no cajado e começou a acordar as ovelhas que ainda dormiam. Ele tinha reparado que, assim que acordava, a maior parte dos animais também começava a despertar. Como se houvesse alguma energia misteriosa a unir a sua vida à vida daquelas ovelhas que há dois anos percorriam com ele a terra, em busca de água e alimento.

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Brazilian Portuguese

Levantou-se e tomou um gole de vinho. Depois pegou o cajado e começou acordando as ovelhas que ainda dormiam. Ele havia reparado que, assim que acordava, a maior parte dos animais também começava a despertar. Como se houvesse alguma energia misteriosa unindo sua vida à vida daquelas ovelhas que há dois anos percorriam com ele a terra, em busca de água e alimento.

He got up and took a sip of wine. Then he took his staff and started waking up the sheep that were still sleeping. He had noticed that most animals also started to wake up as soon as he woke up. As if there was a mysterious energy joining his life to the life of those sheep that, for two years, had been traveling the land with him in search of water and food. “They’ve gotten so used to me that they know my routines,” he said quietly. He reflected for a moment and thought that it could also be the other way around: maybe he had gotten used to the sheep’s routines.

Note that the original text above (Brazilian version) is fully intelligible for European Portuguese native speakers. None of the adjustments were strictly necessary for comprehension. Only highly informal language containing slang words and expressions, or regional dialects, challenge the mutual intelligibility between European and Brazilian Portuguese. 

Differences in pronunciation

As said before, pronunciation is where Brazilian and European Portuguese differ the most. Generally speaking, Brazilian Portuguese has more open vowel sounds and is more melodic than its European counterpart. 

I often hear people saying that the Portuguese “swallow” syllables and that’s a fair observation – European Portuguese, like English, is stress-timed which means higher vowel reduction (more on that soon).

Many people even suggest that European Portuguese phonology is reminiscent of Russian * or other Slavic languages – that’s partially due to vowel reduction, and partially to an abundance of hushing-like fricative sounds (more on that soon, too).

Before we go deeper into phonological differences between the two standards, I want to remind you that Brazil is a big country with various regional dialects. Portugal, though not as big as Brazil, also has its regional differences – the differences in pronunciation pointed out below are based on “standard” versions of either variant of Portuguese. 

* Learn more about why European Portuguese sounds Slavic: Here’s Why Portuguese Sounds like Russian.

Vowel Sounds

Brazilian Portuguese is more clearly pronounced than European Portuguese mainly due to differences in the vowel sounds between the two – there is significantly more vowel reduction going on in the European standard. 

Vowel reduction, if you haven’t yet come across this concept, is a speech mechanism by which unstressed syllables are shortened, thus rendering closed vowel sounds, sometimes even nearly muted. 

Vowel reduction is much more apparent in stress-timed languages like European Portuguese than in syllable-timed languages like Brazilian Portuguese.

Vowel reduction results in a less explicit pronunciation and gives the impression that the person speaking is swallowing word syllables. Let’s listen to the following verses (from the song  Água de Beber by António C. Jobim) in either standard. Pay special attention to the vowel sounds.

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PT-PT
Eu quis amar mas tive medo
Eu quis salvar meu coração
Mas o amor sabe um segredo
O medo pode matar seu coração

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PT-BR
Eu quis amar mas tive medo
Eu quis salvar meu coração
Mas o amor sabe um segredo
O medo pode matar seu coração

Could you notice the vowel sounds nearly disappearing in the European version? 

You’ve probably heard the difference in words ending with the vowel e, for instance, tive or sabe. One can hardly hear that e-sound in the European version. In Brazilian Portuguese, however, you clearly hear an i-sound, as in Lee. Go back and listen again.

I bet you’ve noticed, too, differences in the consonant sounds. That’s where we are heading next.

Consonant Sounds 

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