If you want to learn Portuguese, you need to know that there are three ways each to pronounce “e” and “o”.
Sometimes, you can figure out the correct pronunciation by looking at the accent marks.
The “open” vowels are sometimes written with an acute accent (é/ó). The “closed” vowels are sometimes written with a circumflex (ê/ô). (More on what “open” and “closed” means later.)
Bust in most cases, these vowels are written without any accent, so it’s not obvious what the pronunciation should be.
Pronounce “e” or “o” the wrong way, and it’s a dead giveaway that you’re a gringo.
If you want to get closer to Brazilians by impressing them with your accent, you need to master these vowel distinctions.
This post tells you everything you need to do precisely that.
Before we get to when to pronounce each vowel, let’s first look at how to pronounce them.
If you’re a total beginner in learning Portuguese, you don’t need this article yet. Learn to pronounce the other Portuguese sounds first (there are 55 in total).
I recommend leaving “ê/é”, and “ô/ó” until near the end. You’ll confuse yourself if you tackle them too early.
With that out of the way, let’s get started on the how of open vs. closed pronunciation:
How to Learn Portuguese Open and Closed Vowels
We have six sounds to learn. Before I go over them, you need to understand how vowels work in general.
There are three things you need to get right if you want to pronounce a vowel correctly. If you’ve ever taken a Mimic Method course, this should be familiar to you.
- Tongue position
- Lip roundedness
If this is new to you, go away and read this post on vowel sound pronunciation- It’ll give you the foundational knowledge you need. (Make sure you read the footnote about the International Phonetic Alphabet.) I’ll wait for you.
Once you know the basics of vowel pronunciation, you should be able to understand this chart:
It shows the tongue position of each vowel along with its IPA symbol. I’ll give the IPA for each vowel below, and you can use that to refer back to the chart.
How to pronounce the open “é” sound in Portuguese
The IPA for this sound is /ɛ/.
The tongue position for this vowel is in the lower, front part of the mouth. The lips are unrounded. It’s almost the same as the vowel in the English words “get” or “pet”.
Example words: é, pé, café, até, sério, céu
How to pronounce the open “ó” sound in Portuguese
The IPA for this sound is /ɔ/.
The tongue position for this vowel is in the lower, back part of the mouth. The lips are round. If you’re American, it’s like the word “awe”. For Brits, it’s closer to how you say the “o” in “hot” or “got”.
Example words: só, avó, nós, próximo, história, ótimo.
How to pronounce the closed “ê” sound in Portuguese
The IPA for this sound is /e/.
It’s a close and front vowel, with unrounded lips. It’s like the “ay” in the English words “lay” or “way”… almost.
Say “ay” slowly and you’ll notice that your tongue moves while you do it. It’s actually two vowels said in quick succession. (In linguistics, a double vowel like this is called a “diphthong”.)
The Portuguese ê is like the first part of the English “ay”, except your tongue must not move while you say it. English speakers have a very strong tendency to “double up” the “ê” sound and pronounce it like “ay”. Be very careful not to do this!
(If you speak Spanish, note that that the learning the Portuguese “ê” is the same as the learning the Spanish “e”.)
Example words: você, três, vê, dê, bebê
Pronouncing the closed “ô” sound in Portuguese
The IPA for this sound is /o/.
It’s a close, back vowel with rounded lips.
Like with “ê”, English speakers tend to double this one up. This is because it’s similar to the “o” sound in English words like “go” or “show”. Say these words slowly, and you’ll notice that this is another double vowel. The Portuguese “ô” is like the first vowel in this English diphthong.
(If you speak Spanish, note that that the learning the Portuguese “ô” is the same as learning the Spanish “o”.)
Example words: avô, pôr, tô, robô, quilômetros.
The “reduced” o and e
I mentioned that there’s a third way to pronounce “o” and “e” – the “reduced” sounds. We need to cover these for the sake of completeness.
A “reduced o” is pronounced like an “u” (IPA /u/), and a “reduced e” is pronounced like an “i” (IPA /i/). You reduce “o” and “e” like this whenever they’re in an unstressed syllable at the end of a word. Listen to these examples:
falo, tudo, carro, lado.
vale, sabe, disse
Tuning Your Vowels
The above is a brief overview of how to pronounce these different sounds. Learning them is a physical skill. You can’t figure it out just by reading about it! Listen, repeat, record yourself, and get feedback from a native speaker when possible. It will get easier with time, I promise.
Once you know how to say them, the next question is when do you say them? For example, if you see an “e” written down (and it’s not in an unstressed syllable at the end of a word), is it open or closed? Unfortunately, this can be quite complicated.
How to Know Whether an e or o is open or closed
Remember that when it’s written with an acute accent (é/ó), it’s open, and when it’s written with a circumflex (ê/ô), it’s closed.
If you can’t remember which way around these accents go, think of a raisable bridge across a river. When the bridge is down, in the shape of a circumflex (kinda), boats can’t pass underneath, so the bridge is closed. When it’s raised, pointing diagonally up like an acute accent, it’s now open to water traffic.
There’s one annoying exception. Words that end in -ém or -éns are written with an acute accent, but the “e” is pronounced nasal – /ẽ/.
Have a listen:
também, alguém, ninguém, parabéns
Other than that, the accents are consistent. Whatever the case, if you see a written accent, there’s no mystery as to the pronunciation.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, the vowel is written without an accent. So how the hell are you supposed to know which sound to use?
Sometimes, you simply don’t know. For example, there are two ways to pronounce the word sede. When pronounced with an “ê” sound (“sêde”) it means “thirst”. When pronounced with an “é” sound (“séde”), it means “base”, as in e.g. a military base. But in both cases it’s written without an accent.
sede (é), sede (ê)
Other times, it’s easier to figure out. But as a quick aside, it’s helpful to know why some vowels are written with an accent and some aren’t
Learning When Portuguese Vowels Written With or Without an Accent
Accents aren’t added at random—they follow consistent rules.
The acute accent and circumflex actually perform two functions in Portuguese. First, they show whether the vowel is open or closed. Second, they also tell you that that the vowel is stressed.
Remember, you don’t write an accent unless the syllable would be unstressed without it.
So for example, in a word like avó, that “ó” does two things. First, it tells you that the “o” is open, not closed. Second, it tells you that the o in this word is stressed. If there was no accent – “avo” – the stress would fall on the a.
By the way, you’ll never see an “i” or a “u” with a circumflex in Portuguese. This is because there’s only one way to pronounce those letters, so they have no “open” vs. “closed” distinction. You might see them written with an acute accent (í/ú); this only signifies that the vowel is stressed, and doesn’t change its sound.
Don’t Worry About the Rules At First
It’s better to approach this problem from the bottom up than from the top down. Start by learning how to pronounce as many individual words as possible. Try not to think too hard about what the pronunciation patterns are. Your brain will do a good job of figuring them out for you behind the scenes.
The more you learn, the better you’ll get at guessing the pronunciation of new words.
Sometimes you might not even be able to explain how you knew. It’ll just feel like it should be pronounced a certain way. This is how native speakers learn, after all.
Eventually though, it does help to study the rules a bit more explicitly.
Rules and Patterns for Figuring out Whether a Vowel is Open or Closed
I’ll start with the more general rules that cover the most cases, and get more specific as I go along. Don’t forget that I’m only talking about unaccented vowels here. When you see é/ó or ê/ô, it overrides the rules below.
Unstressed vowels are (almost) always closed.
This is the biggest time-saver. In a word like resolver, the last e is stressed, so you know that the first e and the o must be closed. (The final e is closed too, if you were wondering.) It’s generally only possible to pronounce a vowel in the “open” way if it’s in the stressed syllable.
I’m only aware of one exception to this rule. If you emphasize an adjective by adding “-íssimo/a” to the end, any existing open vowel remains open – even though the word stress has changed.
For example, “belo” and “famosa” contain an open “e” and “o” sound respectively. In “belíssimo” and “famosíssima”, those vowels are still open, even though they’re no longer stressed:
recording: belo, belíssimo, gostosa, gostosíssima.
Nasal vowels are always closed.
In practice, this means that if the vowel is followed by an “m” or an “n”, you know it’s closed. (This would explain why words like “alguém” and “parabéns” are pronounced with a closed “e”. I still don’t know why they’re spelled that way.)
Recording: bom, bem, tem, tempo, nome, onde, contra, tenho, senhor
When the word ends in -ol or -el, the vowel is always open.
Listen to these example words:
Recording: sol, espanhol, hotel, papel
When pluralized, the “-l” becomes “-is”. The vowel remains open, but now it’s written with an accent:
recording: sóis, espanhóis, hotéis, papéis
When “e” or “o” are followed by another vowel, they’re (almost) always closed
sei, dinheiro, eu, seu, vou, oi, foi, matou
I’m aware of one exception: the word ideia. In spoken Portuguese, it’s pronounced as if it was spelled “idéia”. In fact, it used to be spelled like this. It was changed to “ideia” in the orthographic reform of 1990. Why? Because in Portugal they pronounce it like “idêia”, and they’ve always written it with no accent. One aim of the reform was to make Portuguese spelling more consistent between different countries.
Adjectives that end in -oso are closed in the masculine singular form, and open in all other forms
Example words: gostoso, gostosa, gostosos, gostosas. Perigoso, perigosa, perigosos, perigosas.
Words that end in -er are usually closed.
This is always true when it’s an infinitive -er verb:
Example words: quer, saber, ser, viver, ver
Some verbs end with an open “er” in their subjunctive forms, however:
recording: estiver, puder, quiser, der
The noun “mulher” is another exception to this pattern:
Words that end in -or are usually closed.
Examples: cor, for, favor, exterior, humor, senhor.
If it’s a “-dor” noun based on a verb, it’s always closed:
jogador, lutador, governador
(It’s still closed in the feminine forms.)
jogadora, lutadora, governadora.
Exceptions include some irregular comparative adjectives:
maior, pior, menor, melhor
Some verbs change the pronunciation of “e” and “o” in different conjugations
I’ve left this till last because it’s the most confusing topic. Have a listen to these different conjugations of the word beber:
eu bebo, você bebe, nós bebemos, vocês bebem.
Did you notice? bebo and bebemos use the open “e” sound, but in the other two forms it’s closed! There are many verbs that do this; they’re called radical-changing. Unfortunately, it’s rather inconsistent which verbs are radical-changing and which aren’t. So you’ll just have to learn it the hard way. The book 501 Portuguese Verbs is a good resource for learning which is which.
In General, Learn as You Go
Those are the general patterns I’ve noticed. They cover a lot of words, but they don’t tell you everything. Sometimes, you just have to learn the correct vowel on a word-by-word basis.
Remember, you don’t have to learn it all at once. Guess the right vowel if you don’t know it. If you get it wrong, it’s a learning opportunity.
If in doubt, ask a native, or consult a dictionary that gives the pronunciation. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to find a good dictionary that gives both pronunciation and definitions. If you find one, please let me know!
If you have any questions or more information you’d like to add about about open/closed vowel sounds (extra rules, helpful patterns, regional differences) let me know in the comments.