A Brief Introduction To Portuguese Accent Marks

At first glance, the symbols above the vowels and the little “leg” below the letter C might not make a lot of sense to Portuguese learners.
Portuguese accent marks represented by a tiled street sign for Pousada de São Tiago

The other day, a few friends from Mexico asked me, “What’s that weird thing under the C? What does it do in Portuguese?” My high school Portuguese teacher would definitely be disappointed in my answer. Instead of going into detail about the complexity of Portuguese spelling, I said that the cedilla had the sound of a soft C in English (like in “face”). In Spanish, it’s more or less the equivalent of the sound that a Z makes in Latin America. While that’s not necessarily wrong, it’s certainly not the most insightful answer about Portuguese accent marks.

The moral of the story is that the accent marks that Portuguese speakers use may seem strange and unfamiliar to non-Portuguese speakers at first glance. That’s why we interviewed Paulo Chagas de Souza, a linguistics professor at University of São Paulo and a specialist in phonology, morphology, written systems and linguistic history to explain Portuguese accent marks and why we use them.

How Did The Cedilla (Ç) Come To Be In Portuguese?

The cedilla originated when the Visigoths occupied the Iberian Peninsula. It was used to represent a sound that was necessary in Spanish. It was a different form of the letter Z, or a lowercase z combined with the letter C. The cedilla was written with a C followed by a lowercase z. Then, people started putting this z under the C. The term cedilla is the diminutive of ceda (meaning it’s a smaller form). Ceda is a Spanish name for the letter Z in Spanish (derived from the Greek letter Zeta.)

The cedilla was used to represent sounds that Latin didn’t have. In old, archaic and medieval Portuguese, the sounds spelled with S and Ç were pronounced differently. This distinction still exists today in the Beira region of Portugal. But outside of this region, the two sounds have the same pronunciation. The spelling remained the same despite losing the distinction in pronunciation in nearly every area where modern Portuguese is spoken.

Why Do We Still Have Both Ç And SS?

The short answer is that Portuguese still has both spellings because the words are generally derived from Latin. For example, if we take Latin words like natione (“nation”), it becomes nação in Portuguese. When the word’s Latin root word has a T, it becomes a Ç in Portuguese. If the root word has an S (for example casa, “house”) its spelling is the same, but the S is pronounced like a Z. When there is a double SS (for example missa, “mass”) the pronunciation remains S.

This is explanation is part of a larger concept. In Latin, the letters P, T, K and S are voiceless consonants. In Portuguese, they’re pronounced like voiced consonants between vowels. So what was P in Latin became B in Portuguese. Continuing on in the pattern, what was T became D, what was Q or K became G, and what was S became Z. Here are just a few examples of that transformation.

  • Latin lupu became Portuguese lobo (“wolf”).
  • Latin latu became Portuguese lado (“side”).
  • Latin lacu became Portuguese lago (“lake”),
  • Latin casa became Portuguese casa (“house”), pronounced “caza.”

Since Latin already had the letters B, D and G, it became simpler. We used these Latin letters to represent sounds. But Latin didn’t have the Z sound. 

Why Did Portuguese Lose Its Double Consonants?

When we had two consonants in a row in Latin, what we call twin consonants. For example, the Latin bucca became boca in Portuguese. When there were two twin consonants, we ended up using just one, maintaining the voiceless consonant. When there was just one consonant it became a hard consonant. Let’s look at the example of casa, where the S was pronounced like a Z.

When we had the S, we kept the S sound. In the word missa, one S is pronounced while the other one is silent. Latin didn’t have a Z sound. This came from Greek. Then, we ended up using SS to pronounce the voiceless sound and the single S for the voiced consonant.

Since this happened between vowels, the beginning of the words continued having a voiceless sound. For example, we don’t spell santo with the double SS. Santo is enough, though old Portuguese did use SS at the beginning of words. When SS appears in the middle of a word, it became a voiceless consonant. 

Why Do We Have The Other Portuguese Accent Marks?

Most European languages adopted an alphabet that was based on Latin, but Latin had only five vowels. If a language has more than five vowels, what could it do to visually represent the other vowel sounds? There had to be a way to represent the different vowel pronunciations. Two main strategies developed: adding a diacritical mark or using two vowels. 

In French, there’s a digraph to represent two vowels. This can also be found in some British English spellings. For example, a gynæcologist has a digraph to represent the two vowels. Another strategy is using two vowels to represent that sound. In Portuguese, we use symbols on vowels (sometimes called diacritical marks) to differentiate sounds.

The vowels [i] and [u] are closed vowels and have the largest amount of mouth closing for a vowel. On the other hand, the vowel [a] is very open. That’s why the doctor tells us to say “ahh” when they want to take a look at our throats. Mouths open wide to pronounce this vowel. Vowels written with the letter “e” are mid-vowels and aren’t very open or closed. But each letter corresponds to two vowels when pronounced. The vowel can have a semi-open pronunciation, for example with pé, meaning foot, written with an acute accent, or semi-closed, like vê, from the verb ver. The same thing happens with the written vowel. It can have a semi-open pronunciation, like pó, or powder, written with an acute accent, or somewhat closed, like in metrô, or subway. The acute accent indicates a semi-open vowel, and the circumflex indicates a semi-closed vowel. This distinction isn’t always expressed in written language: for example sede/sede, jogo/jogo.

  • É and Ó represent a semi-open vowel.
  • Ê and Ô represent a semi-closed vowel. 

Spanish doesn’t have the same accents or diacritical marks because it has the same vowels as Latin. French uses both. The accents are all derived from Greek.

The grave accent is only used for what we call the crasis (more on this later), but it was used until the early 1970s. One way to use it was when a word had a syllable with a secondary accent or a syllable had an acute accent, and the word had a suffix. For example: , sòzinho, sòmente

The was written and spoken as a tonic accent, but the main accent ended up on the syllable “zin.” So we represented it with the grave accent.

On the other hand, in Italian, when we indicate the tonic syllable we use the grave accent. For example, paltò (paletó).

Where Does The Tilde Came From?

The tilde is an abbreviated form of the N. In Spanish, for example, annu (from Latin without the ending) was initially written anno in Spanish and then later became año to save parchment space in manuscripts. Then the small n with a tilde ended up being used on top of the N, and that’s how the Ñ ended up becoming an essential letter in the Spanish alphabet.

Portuguese accent marks include the tilde, but it uses the symbol a little differently. In Brazil, the tilde is used to represent nasal vowels. This usage is related the the Spanish origin of the Ñ, which itself is a nasal consonant. In Portuguese the tilde is used on à and Õ.

Portuguese has other nasal vowels, which are used when a vowel is followed by an M or an N. The relationship between the tilde and the N is because the N itself is representative of nasality. Sometimes, though, you just have to know that a vowel is nasal. The U in the word muito is an example. Kids who are learning how to read tend to write muito as “muinto,” because that’s what it sounds like.

Other accents generally appear on the tonic syllable. But the tilde doesn’t necessarily indicate the tonic syllable. There are words like sótão and órfão with an acute accent marking the tonic syllable and the tilde marking the diphthong’s nasality.

Why Do We Still Use The Crasis?

The crasis is when the feminine article a and the prepositional a contract into a single word, à.

  • Dei um presente a minha mãe. — I gave my mom a present. (No crasis)
  • Dei um presente à minha mãe. — I gave a present to my mom. (Crasis)

Where there’s a difference in the pronunciation of these two depends on where you are. In Portugal, there’s a lot of difference in the pronunciation, with the atonal “a” in the first example above being not quite as open. In Brazil, there’s no difference in pronunciation.

A school trick to find out when to use the crasis is to put the sentence in the masculine form. If we can say both dei um presente ao meu pai and dei um presente a meu pai, we can either use the crasis or omit it. We say dei um presente ao professor (“I gave the present to the male teacher”), but we can’t say dei um presente a professor because the a there is a feminine article. For this sentence to work, it has to be dei um presente à professora (“I gave a present to the female teacher”). In other words, if ao has to be used in the masculine form, the crasis is required. If it’s possible to use both ao or a in the masculine form, the crasis is optional. We only use the crasis if the noun that follows is feminine.

In the plural form, we also use the crasis if there’s a plural feminine noun after the article a, meaning “the.” 

  • Dei um presente a vários amigos. — I gave a gift to some friends. 
  • Dei um presente a várias amigas. — I gave a present to some female friends.
  • Dei um presente às professoras. — I gave a present to the female teachers.

If you’re used to English, there’ll be a bit of a learning curve with Portuguese accent marks. But don’t worry, you’ll have them down in no time.

A version of this article was originally published on the Portuguese edition of Babbel Magazine.

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