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Portuguese Word Stress and Accent Marks

If you care about Portuguese pronunciation and want to get good at it, you have to come to grips with its word stress patterns. That’s it.

Here’s Portuguese word stress in a nutshell: 

Portuguese words without accent marks are stressed on either the last or next-to-last syllable according to a few spelling patterns.  Otherwise, words are marked with an accent mark that clearly indicates where word stress falls (either on the last, next-to-last, or third-from-last syllable). 

Like English, Portuguese is a stress-timed language (as opposed to syllable-stressed languages). In stress-timed languages, time intervals between stressed syllables are fairly consistent. This leads to the shortening and reduction of unstressed syllables so that they can fit into relatively fixed time intervals set by stressed ones. 

As a result, unstressed syllables are pronounced less clearly, whereas stressed syllables really stand out. Thus, word stress in Portuguese is conspicuous and you can clearly hear it.   

Note! I’ve previously written an article covering Portuguese phonology and its basic sounds. In this one, I will be digging into word stress in specific. Both aspects are relevant to pronunciation, and so this read is a good complement to the former. 

1. By default – without accent marks

Without any accent mark, Portuguese words are normally stressed on either the next-to-last syllable or the last syllable. Let’s take a closer look at it. 

Word stress on the next-to-last syllable

Most commonly, Portuguese words are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. Here are a few examples:

  • momento > mo-men-to (moment)
  • peludo > pe-lu-do (hairy)
  • vezes > ve-zes (times)
  • diabo > di-a-bo (devil)
  • bastante> bas-tan-te (quite)
  • Carlos > Car-los (Carlos)
  • carente > ca-ren-te (needy)
  • . . .

Word stress on the last syllable

However, words ending in certain consonants, vowels, and diphthongs are stressed on the last one. Let’s look at the different subgroups of this category. 

Words ending in -r, -l or -z

Words ending with the consonants -r, -l or -z are stressed on the last syllable:

  • falar > fa-lar (talk)
  • beber > be-ber (drink)
  • anel > a-nel (ring)
  • tamboril > tam-bo-ril (monkfish)
  • rapaz > ra-paz (boy)
  • capuz > capuz (hood)
  • . . .

Words ending in -i or -u

Words ending with the vowels -i or -u ,  even with -is, -iz, us or uz,  are stressed on the last syllable:

  • compreendi > com-pre-en-di (I understood)
  • comi > co-mi (I ate)
  • peru > pe-ru (turkey)
  • menu > me-nu (menu)
  • aprendiz > a-pren-diz (apprentice)
  • anis > a-nis (anise)
  • avestruz > a-ves-truz (ostrich)
  • Jesus > Je-sus (Jesus)
  • . . .

Words ending in decrescent diphthongs

Words ending in diphthongs whose last vowel is either -i or -u (closed vowel sounds) – such as -ai, -au, -ei, eu, -iu, -ou or -ui are also stressed on the last syllable:

  • samurai > sa-mu-rai (samurai)
  • bacalhau > ba-ca-lhau (codfish)
  • consentirei > con-sen-ti-rei (I will allow)
  • Europeu > Eu-ro-peu (European)
  • fugiu > fu-giu (she ran away)
  • nadou > na-dou (she swam)
  • constitui > cons-ti-tui (it constituted)
  • . . .

Words ending in crescent diphthongs (diphthong or hiatus?)

These are words ending in vowel pairs whose first vowel is either -i or -u – such as -ia, -io, -ua, oruo.  In this case, it is not clear (depending on how you pronounce it) whether the vowels comprise a diphthong (one syllable) or a hiatus (two syllables). 

If we consider them to be diphthongs, then the word stress falls on the last syllable. Otherwise, they are said to be stressed on the second-to-last syllable (the one containing either -i or -u). A few examples: 

  • alegria > a-le-gri-a vs. a-le-gria (happiness)
  • casario > ca-sa-ri-o vs. ca-sa-rio (a group of houses)
  • amuo > a-mu-o vs. a-muo (sulkiness)
  • rua > ru-a vs. rua (street)
  • . . .

2. With accent marks

Every word that does not conform with the above-mentioned patterns will take an accent mark to indicate the stressed syllable. In Portuguese, there are four accent marks:

  • the acute accent (´) – used to signal the stressed syllable and an open vowel sound.
  • the circumflex accent (^) – used to signal the stressed syllable while indicating a more closed vowel sound (compared to the acute accent).
  • the tilde (~) – used to indicate word stress as well as a nasal vowel/diphthong sound. There are a few words that take both the tilde and the acute accent, for example, órgão (organ). In that case, the stress is indicated by the acute accent, while the tilde only stands for the nasal sound. 
  • the grave accent (`) – this accent does not indicate word stress; it only signals the contraction of the preposition a with feminine definite articles (a+a, a+as > à, às), and with certain demonstrative pronouns (e.g.,  a+aquele > àquele).

Let’s take a peek at a few different cases.

Word stress on the third-from-last syllable

Every single word that is stressed on the antepenultimate syllable takes, without exception, an accent on that same syllable: 

  • máquina >-qui-na (machine)
  • penúltimo > pe-núl-ti-mo (penultimate)
  • diabólico > di-a--li-co (diabolic)
  • apocalíptico > a-po-ca--pti-co (apocalyptic)
  • atómico > a-tó-mi-co (atomic)
  • . . .

Word stress on the second-to-last syllable

Without an accent mark, the following words would be stressed on the last syllable (according to the patterns explained above):

  • telemóvel > te-le-mó-vel (mobile phone)
  • ginásio > gi-ná-sio (gym)
  • búzio > bú-zio (conch)
  • águia > á-guia (eagle)
  • lápis >-pis (pencil)
  • grátis > grá-tis (free)
  • . . .

Word stress on the last syllable

Without an accent mark, the following words would by default be stressed on the second-to-last syllable (as explained at the beginning of this article):

  • pontapé > pon-ta-(kick)
  • irmã > ir-mã (sister)
  • chinês > chi-nês (Chinese)
  • avião > a-vi-ão (plane)
  • avó > a-(grandmother)
  • . . .

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