I’ve been speaking Brazilian Portuguese regularly for more than a decade, but have recently been spending more time in Lisbon and so I’ve had to make some adaptations for the European version of the language.
So this will be my thorough guide to the differences to note between the two varieties; it’s especially intended for those who need to go through a similar transition in one direction or the other.
- How Different Are European and Brazilian Portuguese, Really?
- Pronunciation Differences
- Key Vocabulary to Watch Out For
- The Grammar Differences Between European and Brazilian Portuguese
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How Different Are European and Brazilian Portuguese, Really?
Quite different, I’d say. I speak English, French, and Spanish as well, and the differences between the varieties of those languages in the Americas versus in Europe are certainly strong, but generally not as far out as when you cross the Atlantic from Portugal to Brazil.
To sum up the Portuguese differences, there is a lot of different, very basic, day-to-day vocabulary; the European accent is much more nasal and the vowels are stifled or dropped; and finally there are some major grammar differences in the spoken (as opposed to written) varieties.
But, this is a matter of opinion, of course, and you’ll get all kinds of different answers to the question, depending on a person’s background and experience of these varieties of Portuguese. Here’s what I think you ought to know:
- I have known many, many Portuguese people who have a hard time making themselves understood when they first travel to Brazil. It is also quite difficult for Brazilians to watch and understand Portuguese films and television without subtitles (or more commonly, dubbing).
- The reverse is not true to as high of an extent; Portuguese people generally understand Brazilians’ speech. People will give armchair linguistic explanations (the “clarity” of Brazilian pronunciation, whatever that means), but the real truth is that Portuguese people are exposed to more Brazilian songs, telenovelas, films, and actual real-life Brazilians than your typical Brazilian is exposed to European Portuguese content and people. So of course Portuguese people come to understand Brazilian Portuguese better than the inverse.
- Because they’re so different, most people who learn Portuguese as a foreign language necessarily focus on learning either Brazilian or European Portuguese, but not both. For those who have learned Brazilian Portuguese, it takes some effort to understand Portuguese people, which is impetus for this article. Those who learn European Portuguese are still often exposed to the Brazilian variety, and so are less likely to have as much trouble understanding Brazilians.
- The spelling of all varieties of Portuguese is supposed to be the same since the implementation of the Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement. Written grammar and vocabulary are still different but it’s fairly easy for speakers of either variety to decipher the other when written.
- The Portuguese spoken in Goa, Angola, and Mozambique is much, much closer to European Portuguese. This is partly because the Portuguese government imposed its genocidal rule over these lands until much more recently, and so in parts of the 20th century there was still more of a mandate to keep the language in those places similar to what was spoken and evolving in Portugal. And there was back-and-forth movement of people. That said, in my personal experience as a Brazilian Portuguese non-native speaker travelling to Goa and Mozambique, I’ve found that it’s much, much easier to understand Portuguese speakers in those two countries than it is to understand Europeans. This may be because these lands have influence from Brazilian soap operas and media, and also because the language loses some of its complexity as it is learned by non-native speakers, particularly in Mozambique.
- Portuguese people and sometimes even Brazilians may insist that the European version of Portuguese is more “correct” or “has more grammar” and other such rather meaningless, culturally biased nonsense.Earl Thomas' classic take.
The toughest nut to crack is understanding the pronunciation differences between Portuguese people and Brazilians. Here are some of the key things to look for, followed by a video that gives some good contrast.
The vowels in Europe sound a bit more pinched and closed off than the wide-open, sing-song Brazilian vowels. Some unstressed vowels get left out of European Portuguese entirely; this is particularly noticeable at the end of words. For example, compare:
The biggest consonant adjustment to make in going from Brazil to Portugal is the S, particularly at the end of words or at the end of a syllable when followed by another consonant. In Brazil, this S has an S sound, but in Portugal it sounds like the English SH.
(However, cariocas (people from Rio) pronounce their S’s as SH as well.)
Another quite notable consonant difference is the Brazilian tendency to take a spelled DE or DI and give it a G sound, and to take the TE or TI and make a CH sound.
Portuguese people do not make this change, and pronounce these sounds “as written”.
In the video below, a Brazilian woman interviews a Portuguese man about the differences between the versions of the language; this also allows for a contrast of the accents.
Note that he had much more trouble being understood in Brazil than in understanding Brazilians, and they mention some of the other vocabulary differences as well.
Key Vocabulary to Watch Out For
I’ve endeavored to make a list of only the most useful words that a speaker is likely to encounter and have issues with in the first month or two of living in either land and adjusting to the local variety of Portuguese. There are, of course, many more.
Here are a few of the trickier European Portuguese words used in sentences:
- No norte, em cada vírgula eles dizem uma asneira. — In the north [of Portugal], in each comma they say some bullshit thing.
- Levantaste dinheiro no multibanco? — Did you take money out of the ATM?
- Hoje, a malta vai ao futebol. — The group is going to the football match.
- Tenho um canudo em dramaturgia. — I have a degree in playwriting.
- As passadeiras ficam escorregadias. — The sidewalks end up slippery.
- Não sejas puto! — Don’t act immature!
- Os putos estão a fazer muito barulho. — The young people are making a lot of noise.
- Onde é a casa de banho? — Where is the bathroom?
The Grammar Differences Between European and Brazilian Portuguese
As noted above, it’s not that one version has “more” or “better” grammar, just that the two varieties are different.
Tu vs. você: Saying “you” in Portugal and Brazil
The second-person informal singular is one of the more obvious grammatical distinctions between these two countries.
In Portugal, the informal singular “you” is tu. In Brazil, it is você (though some parts of the south do use tu to a certain degree).
If you’re used to Portuguese speech, you can adapt to Brazil by using você instead of tu in all cases; you conjugate você as you would conjugate the third-person singular (ele or ela).
If you’re used to Brazilian speech, it’s not too difficult to adapt to Portuguese from Portugal; the tu conjugations are generally the same as você but with the addition of an S at the end.
So for example, taking the European Portuguese version of to understand, perceber.
- você percebe — you understand (Brazil)
- tu percebes — you understand (Portugal)
That’s the regular indicative present tense conjugation. The same rule of adding an S to the você form to create the tu form applies to make the subjunctive.
- você perceba — you understand (Brazil)
- tu percebas — you understand (Portugal)
- Quero que percebas uma coisa. — I want you to understand something.
The future subjunctive and personal infinitive forms add an ES in the tu form as compared to the você form.
- quando tu perceberes — when you understand
- Ao ires a Lisboa, visita-me. — When you go to Lisbon, visit me.
The past preterite tense for tu is a bit more complicated. It goes like this for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs respectively.
- tu brincaste — you played
- tu percebeste — you understood
- tu fingiste — you pretended
Gerunds in Brazil; No Gerunds in Portugal
Brazilians use gerunds (-ando, -endo, -indo; corresponding roughly to -ing endings in English) all the time to indicate the continuity of an action, whereas the Portuguese go to great lengths to avoid them.
- Estou a ir. — I’m going. (Portugal)
- Estou indo. — I’m going. (Brazil.)
In many cases European Portuguese speakers may also just say vou, using the standard present tense, in situations where Brazilians would favor the more shaded continuous meaning of the gerund.
Gerunds are similarly avoided in Portugal in the past and other tenses.
Many Object Pronouns in Portugal; Few of Them in Brazil
Brazilians have some object pronouns but tend to avoid them, particularly in speech, where using them would sound stilted. Portuguese people apply them quite naturally in both written and spoken contexts.
If you’re used to Brazilian speech and you want to understand Portuguese people, you need to be able to recognize the variety of object pronouns as well as the complex combinations and changes they sometimes undergo.
Direct, Indirect, and Reflexive Object Pronouns in Portugal
The direct object pronouns are listed below, followed by their corresponding subject pronoun.
- me — eu (me)
- te — tu (informal you)
- o / a — ele / ela / o senhor / a senhora (him / her / it / formal you)
- nos — nós (us)
- os / as — eles / elas / vocês (them / plural you)
- Eu chamei-o. — I called him.
The indirect object pronouns are the same, but replace o / a with lhe and os /as with lhes.
- Eu telefonei-lhe. — I called him.
To phone someone is one of the few (only) verbs that takes an indirect object but takes no direct object in Portuguese. The same is true whether you use telefonar or ligar.
- Eu liguei-lhe. — I called him.
But if you’re using the verb ligar in the sense of turning something on, it takes a direct object.
- Eu liguei-a. — I turned it on.
And conversely chamar means the same thing but takes only direct objects for talking about the person being called, as seen just above. But if you call someone a name, then you use an indirect object for the person you are taunting.
- Chamei-lhe de vaidoso. — I called him vain.
I take the time to point these verbs out because they’re the complicated ones in Portuguese, otherwise a verb taking a single object will take a direct object, and a verb taking two objects will have both a direct and indirect object.
The reflexive pronouns are also the same as the direct object pronouns, but replace o / a as well as os / as with se.
- Ele lava-se. — He washes himself.
- Eu lavo-me. — I wash myself.
- Os senhores lavam-se. — The gentlemen (or you, formal and plural) are washing themselves (yourselves).
- Eu vim-me. — I came (had an orgasm). [As noted in the above vocabulary table, this would be gozei in Brazil.]
Placement and Modifying of the Object Pronouns in Portugal
Brazilians love to place any object pronouns they do use before the verb, but in European Portuguese these “always” come after the verb (hyphenated).
- Tu bebes o sumo. — You drink the juice. (Portugal)
- Tu bebe-lo. — You drink it. (Portugal)
- Tu o bebes. — You drink it. (Brazil)
The direct object is after the verb in Portugal (and we’ll see in a moment why it is modified to become lo in this case).
But then of course there are the exceptions, in which case object pronouns come before the verb, such as when the phrase has:
- An adverb (já, sempre, etc.)
- A negative word (não, nunca, etc.)
- An interrogative (question) word (quando, quem, etc.)
- A conjunction (quem, enquanto, etc.; includes the interrogative words in their roles as conjunctions)
- A preposition (por, em, para, etc.)
If you’re using the pronouns o / a / os / as after a verb and the verb ends in S, Z, or R, you will lose that consonant add an L before the pronoun.
- Ele faz a tarefa. — He does the job.
- Ele fá-la. — He does it.
- Eu danço gafieira! — I dance gafieira.
- Sim, e dança-la bem! — Yes, and you dance it well!
If the verb ends in a vowel followed by an N or M (that is, the vowel is pronounced as a nasal vowel — the N and M are unpronounced), you will add a pronounced N before the pronouns o / a / os / as.
- Eles levantam dinheiro no multibanco. — They take money out of the ATM.
- Eles levantam-no no multibanco. — They take it out of the ATM.
The above rules apply to present and past tenses. If you’re dealing with the future or conditional, you should in theory put the object pronoun after the verb stem but before the conjugated ending.
- Eu farei os trabalhos. — I will do the jobs.
- Eu fá-los-ei. — I will do them.
However, that is not common in speech; Portuguese people are more likely to just reformulate to avoid the complications:
- Eu vou fazê-los. — I’m going to do them
I’ve endeavored to walk the line between concise and complete, but any further notes from those transitioning from one variety of Portuguese to the other would be quite welcome in the comments. I’ll update this post as need be in the future.
Thanks to Ana Cristina on Italki, who provided a lot of good insights as I was preparing this article. She’s a top-notch teacher of European Portuguese, and is available for lessons one-on-one via Skype.