How to learn languages – Portuguese

Portuguese, a significant global language given its predominance in Brazil, comes next among Latinate languages and then we will move back east and north.

But here we have a problem. Because, ahem, a verdade é que não falo Português…

Mind, let us compare that straight away to Vulgar Latin:

  • I had shown words the development of words such as veritate, which developed to Portuguese verdade ‘truth’ (see also here);
  • Late Latin –(i)one generally becomes a full nasal in Portuguese, written –ã(thus, for example, o ‘not’);
  • I had mentioned in Vulgar Latin fabulare had taken on the broad meaning ‘speak’, developing in Portuguese to falar.

So, the above means ‘the truth is I do not speak Portuguese’. Easy…

Actually I do speak a little rusty Portuguese (otherwise I could not write this), having spent some time over several years near Lisbon in my late teens. Nevertheless, how would I or anyone else go about learning it properly?

(In this case, particularly, all corrections welcome…)


For European football fans, Portuguese is the language of the moment after all, so let us take a look!


Portuguese is characterised by distinct nasal sounds, marked variously (nacão ‘nation’, portagem ‘[toll] gate’, muito ‘much’); that of Portugal is additionally particularly recognisable from its slushy sound (<s> before a consonant or at the end of a word is pronounced like English <sh>, e.g. nacões ‘nations’, escola ‘school’; <d> is also somewhat palatalised before <e> or <i>, almost like English <j>, in words such as cidade ‘city’ or dia ‘day’).

Marked also, again particularly in Portugal, is the shortness of vowels. These can almost be clipped between consonants and at the end of words (final <e> is generally silent).

Double consonants are often written etymologically but not pronounced (e.g. passar ‘pass’). Palatised /l/ and /n/ are written with a following <h> (filho ‘son’; Espanha ‘Spain’). A complex series of initial consonant clusters ending <l> in Latin has been reduced to initial <ch> in words such as chover ‘rain’ (< Vulgar Latin plovere), chama ‘flame’ (< flamma), chave ‘key’ (< clavis).

Brazilian and European Portuguese are easily distinguishable – the latter seeming a lot faster due to its slushier and clipped nature (those are, admittedly, not technical terms!)

What in English is known as a “tilde” (e.g. ãõ) was originally a following letter n, marked by both Portuguese and Spanish calligraphers above the previous letter to save space.


Portuguese has a bizarre history well beyond the scope of this blog post, because its first identifiable form came not in modern Portugal at all, but in the now Spanish region of Galicia to the north. Essentially three major modern Latin-based languages spread south from the northern Iberian peninsula – Catalan to the east; Castilian (what most now call “Spanish”) in the middle and Galician to the west. Those Galician speakers heading south during the Reconquista of the Peninsula ended up founding the Kingdom of Portugal (while those who remained in Galicia ended up tied to Spain – in fact, the current Prime Minister of Spain is Galician).

The standardisation of Portuguese, begun when it was recognised as the common language of the people distinct from Latin in the 1290s (at the same time as the foundation of the first university in Portugal, now in Coimbra), was complex. The emergence of literary norms struggled to deal with a significant sound shift in the late Middle Ages. The practical outcome is that the language has far more variations in vowels than neighbouring Castilian Spanish, thus requiring a much wider range of accent marks. (For the record Galician remains a regional language of Spain with its own written system, now linguistically somewhere between Castilian and Standard Portuguese.)

Unusually among European languages, the current Portuguese Standard is primarily the work of one man, Gonçalves Viana, tasked to carry it out at the beginning of the Portuguese Republic shortly before the Great War. Passing this task to one man, and assuming that the main aim was direct phonemic representation, caused its own problems, again beyond the scope of this blog post. Perhaps Portuguese spelling is best described as very complex, but at least quite consistent. (Brazil adopted its own similar but not identical Standard some decades later.)

A controversial spelling reform in the past few years sought to bring the varieties of Portuguese (predominantly “Brazilian” on one hand and “European” on the other; African varieties generally follow “European” literary norms) closer together. Nevertheless, although such things are difficult to quantify exactly, the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are probably greater than between, for example, American and British English. Not only do some (albeit now fewer) spellings and words vary, but grammar is markedly different. By most accounts the Portuguese have little difficulty understanding Brazilians (as they are used to Brazilian soap operas etc), but the reverse is not always true, particularly when speech becomes more informal and colloquial.


Portuguese vocabulary is largely of Latin origin, though Portugal’s history under Arabic-speaking rule and subsequently as an imperial power in its own right have led to some other influences.

Key numbers:

  • 1 um; 2 dois/duas; 3 três; 4 quatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 sete; 8 oito; 9 nove; 10 dez;
  • 11 onze; 12 doze; 16 dezesseis; 17 dezessete; 20 vinte; 21 vinte e um; 100 cem;
  • 1000 mil; 456789 quatrocentos e cinquenta e seis mil setecentos e oitenta e nove.

A key word in Portuguese without obvious parallel is ficar ‘be, get’.

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular eu, me (mim); familiar tu, te (ti) or polite você; ele/ela, o/a (lhe);
  • plural nós, nos; vocês; eles/elas, os/as (lhes)


Portuguese nouns have one of two genders, masculine often ending -o and feminine -a (but note feminine -ão). Plural generally adds -(e)s but there are exceptions (and -ão becomes –-ões).

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, cantas, canta; cantamos, cantatis, cantam.

Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” candando.

The Portuguese verb is extraordinarily complex. Not only has it endings to mark present, past preterite, past imperfect, future and conditional, it also includes endings for a pluperfect in use in daily speech; it also has the full range of past, present and future subjunctives all in use even colloquially. To this is even added a set of personal infinitives. Portuguese then uses ter (cf. Italian avere, Spanish haber) as the auxiliary verb to form the perfect.

Portuguese is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminam ‘they finish’; o vimos ‘we saw it’.

However in the 21st century, unlike in other Latinate languages, there is a marked growing tendency to include the subject regardless, particularly in Brazil: eu canto; eles terminam; nós o vimos.

Portuguese adjectives agree with nouns in all positions; generally they appear attributively after them.

Portuguese articles are also exceptional as the definite has been reduced to masculine o (plural os) and feminine a (as). This is used before possessives: a meu chave ‘my key’. The indefinite article is slightly more complex, with masculine um and feminine uma also having plural forms uns and umas (used typically to mean ‘some, a number of’; umas chaves ‘a number of keys’).

Common Portuguese prepositions:

  • de ‘of, from’, com ‘with’, a ‘to’, por ‘for, on behalf of’, para ‘for, towards’.

Most of these are combined with the definite article where relevant, sometimes with amendments:

  • da ‘of the’ [feminine singular]; ao ‘to the’ [masculine singular]; pelas ‘for the’ [from para+os; masculine plural]; ás ‘to the’ [from a+as; feminine plural].

Usage of pronouns, particularly personal pronouns, varies between dialects, even within Brazil and Portugal. In some areas, including most of Brazil, você (used typically with a third person verb) has taken over entirely for ‘you’, meaning second-person verb forms are lost entirely.

Word order is typically SVO or SOV where the object is a personal pronoun. However, the exact order of items where personal pronouns appear as objects is complex, and varies also between Brazilian and European usage.


Portuguese is a rhythmically very different language from Spanish or Italian; while structurally very similar to the former, it sounds utterly distinct.

It is a markedly verbal language, with a wide range of subtleties in tense and mood expressed through the huge range of endings (and combinations of auxiliary verbs) available.

What next?

Next week we will stay in Iberia with Castilian Spanish, an apparently similar (but in practice very different sounding) language.

Pai nosso, que estás no céu; santificado seja o teu nome; venha o teu reino; seja feita a tua vontade; assim na terra como no céu; o pão nosso de cada dia nos dai hoje; e perdoai as nossas dívidas; assim como nós perdoamos os nossos devedores; e não nos deixes cair em tentação; mas livrai-nos do mal.


2 thoughts on “How to learn languages – Portuguese

  1. […] broadly, we can split Latin’s daughter languages into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. […]

  2. […] to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a […]

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