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I often hear people saying that Portuguese sounds like Russian! Have you ever heard it?
What is so striking about that comment is that Portuguese and Russian are relatively distant languages – one is a Romance language, the other Slavic.
And so one can wonder: why do people often associate Portuguese with a Slavic language?
In a nutshell, here’s a plausible explanation to why Portuguese and Russian sound alike:
Portuguese and Russian share common phonological features that make them sound superficially similar from a distance – both are stress-timed languages with a similar rhythm and accentuated vowel reduction. Additionally, both languages share an abundance of hushing fricative and palatal consonant sounds.
Listen to the sound clippings below and see if you also find phonological similarities between the two.
It is not unprecedented that even a Portuguese native speaker might, in a split second, come under the impression that her tongue is being spoken when she happens to hear a Slavic language.
That actually happened to me not long ago. I was at the airport walking toward the boarding gate when, amidst all the background noise, I heard somewhat familiar sounds uttered by a couple passing me by.
I quickly figured that it was not Portuguese. But still. For that fraction of a second, my ears made me believe that the couple was talking in my native tongue.
Judging by all the hushing and palatal sounds, I reckon it was a Slavic language. Which one? I can’t be sure …
In what follows, we’ll get to the nitty-gritty of this phonological resemblance between Portuguese and Slavic languages. Let’s get started.
Note! This resemblance between Portuguese and Slavic languages mostly concerns the European variant of Portuguese. Learn more about how Brazilian and European standards compare: European vs. Brazilian Portuguese – How Different Are They Really?
A common feature between Portuguese and Slavic languages is the fact that they are stress-timed languages.
In stress-timed languages, as opposed to syllable-timed languages, the time intervals between stressed syllables is fairly consistent. Thus, in order to fit into relatively fixed time intervals, unstressed syllables are shortened.
Often, syllable shortening results in vowel reduction, meaning that word syllables are pronounced less clearly and with closed vowel sounds.
In the following examples, stressed syllables are marked in bold whereas the reduced vowels are in red. Notice how the e-sounds are hardly recognizable, and how the o produces a reduced u-sound:
Quero beber sumo
Also, since closed vowel sounds become hardly perceptible, vowel reduction leads, in practice, to consonant clusters:
Last but not least, stress-timed languages share a singular rhythm and cadence that our ears can pick up and recognize.
In sum, all these features – vowel reduction, consonant clustering, and a recognizable language cadence – result from a stress-timed accent that both Portuguese and Slavic languages share in common.
Reading tips! Being a stress-timed language, Portuguese has strong syllable and word-stress patterns – getting it right will positively affect your pronunciation a great deal. Learn more about it: Portuguese Word Stress and Accent Marks.
So, why don’t the other Romance languages sound Slavic as well? That’s a good question.
The fact that the other Romance languages are much more syllable-timed than stress-timed can, at least partly, account for that.
Notice that I say, “much more than” because the language attribute in point is not binary – instead, different languages are placed along a continuum.
So, languages that are dominantly syllable-timed have all word syllables lasting approximately the same duration of time.
Spanish and Italian fall into this category and, therefore, don’t sound as Slavic as European Portuguese does.
In other words, these other Romance languages have a different rhythm and much less vowel reduction.
As a matter of fact, people often say that Spanish pronunciation is, in general, easier than Portuguese. Such an understanding aligns well with what has been said: more vowel reduction results in closed vowel sounds, which in turn makes the language, Portuguese in this case, less clearly pronounced.
Likewise, Brazilian Portuguese, which is also less stress-timed than its European sibling, is often said to be easier on the ear than the Portuguese spoken in Portugal. That might well be the case.
So far so good. But! There are more stress-timed languages out there, English being one of them. Have you ever heard people saying that Portuguese and English sound alike? I haven’t.
There must be more to this phonological resemblance between Portuguese and Slavic languages.
Reading tips! If you are interested in knowing more about how different Portuguese and Spanish languages really are, I recommend the following article: How Similar Are Portuguese and Spanish?
Sibilants result from consonants that produce hushing and hissing sounds. In English, you’ll find these sounds in words such as simple, zebra, sheet, measure, chat, and gentle.
These sounds are frequent in Portuguese, Russian, and other Slavic languages, particularly the postalveolar fricatives (as in she and usual ). While these fricative sounds are not exactly the same in either language, they are pretty close.
In what follows, I will be referring to a few IPA symbols. IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet and each of its symbols stands for one, and only one, language sound.
Having said that, let’s take a closer look at the Portuguese spelling patterns that produce the above-mentioned fricative sounds.
The /ʃ/-sound, a voiceless postalveolar consonant (as in she), is omnipresent in the Portuguese language. Let’s see why.
For instance, any word ending with the letter s will render the /ʃ/-sound. And believe me, there are endless s-ending words in Portuguese, not least because Portuguese is an s-plural language.
By s-plural language I mean that the dominant pattern to form the plural is, just as in English, to add an s at the end of the noun:
casa → casas
house → houses
Also, in Portuguese, the articles, adjectives, and pronouns will conform to the number. Thus, the s-plural will be added to them as well:
A minha casa → As minhas casas
My house → My houses
What’s more, even the plural forms of personal pronouns and verb tenses will take s-plural:
Eu tenho a minha casa → Nós temos as nossas casas
I have my house → We have our houses
Unquestionably, the s-plural makes the /ʃ/-sound pervasive in Portuguese. But there are even other spelling patterns feeding into it.
The /ʃ/-sound is rendered whenever s precedes a voiceless consonant, as in the words estou, espera, and escadas (I am, wait, and stairs respectively).
Also, words that end with a z, for instance, perspicaz (astute), will render this same fricative sound.
Furthermore, the digraph ch also produces the /ʃ/-sound, as in the words chapéu or acho (hat and I think respectively).
Although the letter x can stand for 4 different consonant sounds, it most commonly renders the /ʃ/-sound. For instance, all words starting with an x, as in xaile (shawl), do that.
Also, the /ʃ/-sound is produced whenever an x precedes another consonant, as in the word extremo (extreme). Additionally, an x in between vowels will, most of the time, render this sibilant, as in the word caixa (box).
The /ʒ/-sound, also called voiced postalveolar (as in usual), is quite present in the Portuguese as well. The difference between the /ʃ/-sound and /ʒ/-sound is that the latter is voiced – your vocal cords vibrate when producing it.
Several spelling patterns in Portuguese will render the /ʒ/-sound. The letter j, for instance, will always produce this sound, as in janela or queijo (window and cheese respectively).
Also, you will hear this sound whenever the g is followed by a soft vowel – either e or i – as in gelado or girafa (ice cream and giraffe respectively).
Lastly, the /ʒ/-sound is produced when the letter s occurs in front of a voiced consonant, as in the words esbelto, esgoto, or asneira (slim, sewer, and blunder respectively).
In the video below, I go through the above-mentioned spelling patterns that render the /ʃ/ and /ʒ/-sounds.
Another phonological aspect that Portuguese and Slavic languages have in common is their widespread palatalized consonants.
There are two palatalized consonant sounds in Portuguese: a palatal nasal denoted with the IPA symbol /ɲ/, and a palatal lateral approximant represented by the IPA symbol /ʎ/.
The /ɲ/-sound is always spelled in Portuguese with the nh digraph, as in the words ninho or lenha (nest and firewood respectively).
The /ʎ/-sound, on the other hand, is represented by the lh digraph, as in milho or palhaço (corn and clown respectively). This sound does not exist in English either, although the y-sound, as in yes or yeast, comes pretty close to it.
The dark L – represented by IPA’s /ɫ/ symbol – is a velarized L-sound that is thicker than the “normal” L-sound, approximately as in the English words minimal or malware.
The /ɫ/-sound is frequently heard in Russian and Polish as it is in Portuguese, thus adding to the phonological resemblance between these languages.
Words that end with an L render the velarized l-sound, for example, carnaval (carnival). Also, whenever an L precedes another consonant, as in cálcio (calcium).
Portuguese stands out from other Romance languages because of its profusion of nasal sounds.
This phonological feature, in addition to the others discussed above, increases Portuguese’s phonological similitude with one Slavic language in particular – Polish.
Portuguese nasal vowels are produced whenever a vowel precedes an n or an m. For instance, the a-e-i-o-u nasal vowel sounds are rendered in the words andar (walk), embora (though), cinto (belt), comprar (buy), and cumprimento (length) respectively.
Also, the diacritical mark tilde (~) over the a-vowel renders a nasal sound. The words romã (pomegranate) and limão (lemon) produce a nasal vowel and diphthong respectively.
Further reading! Learn more about Portuguese phonology in the following article: Portuguese Pronunciation: A Helpful Guide to Portuguese Basic Sounds and Spelling Patterns.
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