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You are probably aware that there are two well-established standards of Portuguese – the European and the Brazilian standards. Most language learners, though, don’t know much about their differences and, most of all, how big they are.
So, how different are European and Brazilian Portuguese, really? 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, lexical preferences, and spelling between the two standards, it is their pronunciations that differ the most. Nonetheless, those differences don’t hinder, in any substantial way, mutual intelligibility.
In this article, I will walk you through a comparison between European and Brazilian standards of Portuguese according to differences in spelling, lexicon, pronunciation, and grammar. Let’s get started.
It goes without saying …
This binary European vs.Brazilian classification is a coarse generalization.
Due to a long period under Portugal’s colonial dominance, the Portuguese 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 classified in the future.
The comparison between European and Brazilian Portuguese that follows refers specifically to Portugal and Brazil.
Note that even within Portugal and Brazil, there is a considerable amount of lexical and phonological regional variation. I will then stick to what’s considered “standard” on each side.
Let’s start by getting an overall sense of how Brazilian and European Portuguese look and sound in their written and spoken forms respectively.
Below, you have 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:
Brazilian Portuguese (original)
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. “Elas já se acostumaram tanto a mim que conhecem meus horários”, disse em voz baixa. Refletiu um momento e ponderou que também podia ser o contrário: talvez ele houvesse se acostumado ao horário das ovelhas.
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. “Elas já se acostumaram tanto a mim que conhecem os meus horários”, disse em voz baixa. Refletiu um momento e ponderou que também podia ser o contrário: talvez ele se tivesse acostumado ao horário das ovelhas.
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 as soon as he woke up, most animals also started to wake up. As if there were some 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 once more 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.
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 (as is the case of 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 variant. Pay special attention to the vowel sounds.
Eu quis amar mas tive medo Eu quis salvar meu coração Mas o amor sabe um segredo O medo pode matar seu coração I wanted to love but I was afraid I wanted to keep my heart safe But love knows a secret Fear can suffocate your heart
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 the Brazilian Portuguese, however, you clearly hear an i-sound, as in Lee. Go back and listen again.
I bet that you’ve noticed, too, differences in the consonant sounds. That’s where we are heading next.
There’s definitely more of a hushing resonance in European Portuguese than in the other. Much of it is due to the pronunciation of the letter s.
Accordingly, in European Portuguese, all words ending with an s render a sh-sound, as in shape. The same happens whenever the s occurs in front of a voiceless consonant (p, t, c, f).
Even words ending with a z produce that same sh-sound
In Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, the s letter will, under the same circumstances, produce more of an s-sound (as in sign).
Listen to the following sentence in either standard:
Nós estamos sem voz. We are aphonic.
In European Portuguese, words ending with anlrender the so-called dark l-sound, roughly as in normal.
But that’s not the case for Brazilian Portuguese, where the letter lwill produce a rounded vowel sound, as in bow.
Listen to the following sentence and compare:
O céu é azul. The sky is blue.
In European Portuguese, words ending with an rproduce the so-called alveolar tap, more or less as in settle (American pronunciation). In Brazilian Portuguese, however, these r-sounds are muted.
On the other hand, and back again to the European standard, words starting with an rrender a throaty r-sound (produced at the back of the mouth). That’s also the case whenever a doubleris stuck in between vowels.
In Brazilian Portuguese, depending on the region, that throaty r can be voiceless, as in Juan (Spanish pronunciation).
Listen to the following sentence and compare the r-sounds mentioned above:
O Ricardo gosta de correr na praia e nadar no mar. Ricardo likes to run on the beach and swim in the sea.
In European Portuguese, the letter dis always pronounced the same way, roughly as in date (the Portuguese d is somewhat less percussive and sharp than the English).
In Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, the letter d can render a /dʒi/-sound, as in aging or jail. This happens when d is followed by either i or ane that sounds like i (namely when e appears at the end of a word).
Listen and compare the d-sounds mentioned above:
Pode mudar de atitude? Can you change your attitude?
The t behaves analogously to the d.
In the European standard, the letter talways produces the same sound, more or less as in tea (once more, the Portuguese t is pronounced less percussively than the English).
However, in Brazilian Portuguese, the letter t will sometimes produce a /tʃi/-sound, as in chat. This is the case when t is followed by i or an e that sounds like i.
Listen and compare the t sounds mentioned above:
O Tiago tinha bebido aguardente. Tiago had drunk some brandy.
The Portuguese language is renowned for its abundance of nasal sounds.
These nasal sounds are even more resonant than in Brazilian Portuguese. Listen and compare:
O João come melão com uma grande satisfação. João eats melon with great satisfaction.
Lexical preferences and false friends: Portugal vs. Brazil
On either side of the Atlantic, you will find different colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions reflecting different cultures.
To illustrate this, let’s peek into Mário’s (Portugal) and Laura’s (Brazil) daily routines:
A typical day in Mario’s and Laura’s lives
First thing in the morning, Mário goes straight to the quarto de banho (bathroom) to take a shower, while Laura uses the banheiro.
Feeling fresh after his shower, Mário eats pequeno-almoço (breakfast) and drinks sumo (juice), whereas Laura has her café da manhã with suco.
Satiated, Mário puts the butter and milk back into the frigorífico (fridge). Likewise, Laura puts the yogurt back into the geladeira.
When they leave for work, Mário takes the comboio (train) first, and then he changes to an autocarro (bus). The same goes for Laura. First, she takes the trem and then the ônibus.
When they arrive at work, Mário greets his colleagues with an Olá pessoal! Laura shouts, Oi galera! Apparently, they both have casual work environments*.
During the lunch break, Mário grabs a cachorro (hotdog) and põe-se à treta (chats) with his workmates. Laura takes a long time eating her cachorro-quente because she is mostly batendo um papo (chatting), not eating.
For dessert, Mário goes for a gelado (ice-cream). Laura does the same and eats a sorvete.
On their way back home, Mário bumps into his girlfriend who tells him, “I have uma coisa (something) to tell you – I bought us a trip to Brazil.” Mário gets all excited and says, fixe! (awesome).
Laura also runs into her boyfriend and shares something with him: “I have um negócio (something) to tell you: I bought us a trip to Portugal.” Her boyfriend replies: legal! (awesome).
When he finally arrives home, Mário sees his cão (dog) wagging its tail and all excited to see him again. Laura also arrives home and the first thing she hears is her cachorro barking her welcome.
Here’s a summary with common expressions that differ between Portugal and Brazil:
quarto de banho
café da manhã
to chat (informal)
pôr-se à treta
bater um papo
equipa de futebol
time de futebol
. . .
. . .
! Brazilians use diminutives with higher frequency than people in Portugal. Diminutives are derivative words with ending in –inho suggesting either smaller size, endearment, or deprecation. Some examples would be Joãozinho (little John), carrinho(little car), or beijinho(sweet kiss).
There are several words that share the same origin but whose meanings eventually grew apart as time went by. Often, the same word has several meanings on one side but only one meaning on the other, which can lead to misunderstandings.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Portuguese-Brazilian False Friends
Portuguese equivalents of the Brazilian words
Brazilian equivalents of the Portuguese words
PT ► tuition fee BR ► brive
PT ► last name BR ► nickname
PT ► girl BR ► prostitute
prostituta (used in Brazil for prostitute as well)
PT ► suit BR ► fact
PT ► leather BR ► skin (only human)
pele (it also refers to human skin)
Portugal ► queue Brazil ► gay
fila (used in Portugal for queue as well)
Portugal ► pedestrian Brazil ► pawn
pedestre (used in Portugal for pedestrian as well)
Differences in grammar
There are a few grammar nuances between Brazilian and European Portuguese. Let’s take a look at some of them.
The European variant always calls for definite articles in front of proper nouns and possessive pronouns. In Brazilian Portuguese, though, those articles are most commonly left out.
A few examples:
(pt)OPedro viu a Teresa no café. (br)Pedro viu a Teresa no café. Pedro saw Teresa at the café.
(pt)Omeu irmão vive na Argentina. (br)Meu irmão vive na Argentina. My brother lives in Argentina.
Either standard of Portuguese deals with continuous tenses differently.
Take the present continuous for instance. In European Portuguese, you use the auxiliary verb estar conjugated in the present tense and followed by the preposition a and the main verb in the infinitive form.
In Brazilian Portuguese, you also use the auxiliary estar conjugated in the present tense, but there is no preposition in between the verbs and the main verb is in the present participle.
Here’s an example:
(pt) A Catarina está a viajar. (br) Catarina está viajando. Catarina is traveling.
There are only minor differences in spelling between the Brazilian and the European variants.
An orthographic agreement signed by several Portuguese-speaking countries, and coming into force under the 2010s, further contributed to a standardized spelling across the various regions where Portuguese is spoken.
To be clear, this agreement doesn’t interfere with the lexical or pronunciation specificities of either country. It strictly concerns spelling.
For instance, in European Portuguese and before the agreement, several words were spelled with mute consonants, namely mute c‘s and p‘s. In Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, that was never the case as they wouldn’t write unpronounced letters.
Accordingly, in European Portuguese and before the agreement, the words acção (action), correcto (correct), baptismo (baptismo), and excepto (except) included mute consonants. Today, they are spelled ação, correto, batismo, and exceto, just the way they already had been according to the spelling of the Brazilian variant.
This was only one example illustrating how the orthographic agreement brought closer the spellings on either side of the Atlantic. But there are still a few minor differences, most of them reflecting variations in pronunciation:
recepção (Brazilians pronounce the p)
european (feminine form)
Antônio (the ‘o’ is pronounced with a more closed vowel sound)