Grammar Tips (#4): The sound of S(ilence)

s is one of the most multifaceted of Portuguese consonants, being capable of representing four different sounds. I’ve mentioned one of those before when talking about ç – the plain /s/ of English saladsolvent, pass), but I thought it would be best to talk about all of them in the same article.

#1: A single s at the start of a word always sounds like /s/; the same rule applies to an before a vowel/diphthong and after a consonant or nasal vowel:

  • [a] salsa (parsley): sˈaɫ.sɐ
  • [a] salada (salad): sɐ.lˈa.dɐ
  • [o] bolso (pocket): bˈoɫ.su
  • cansado/a (tired): kɐ̃.sˈa.du

#2: Between vowels (or a diphthong and a vowel), a single s as a /z/ sound; to make an /s/ sound between vowels, you have to resort to the digraph ss (or ç, ce, ci) instead.

  • [a] asa (wing): ˈa.zɐ
  • [a] coisa (thing): kˈoj.zɐ
  • [a] massa (mass, pasta, dough): mˈa.sɐ
  • [o] passo (step): pˈ

It’s important to note that, in these two rules, all the s (or ss) are at the beginning of a syllable (and are therefore followed by vowels); this distinction is relevant since the other two sounds produced by s occur when the s is at the end of a given syllable and it is followed by consonants.

#3: When followed by a voiceless consonant (/s/, /k/, /p/, /f/, /t/) in the middle of a word, or simply when ending a word, s sounds like the English “sh”, /ʃ/

  • [o] crescimento (growth): kɾɨʃ.si.mˈẽ.tu
  • [o] músculo (muscle): mˈuʃ
  • [as] aspas (quotation marks, “”): ˈaʃ.pɐʃ
  • [a] esfera (sphere): ɨʃ.fˈɛ.ɾɐ
  • [o/a] dentista (dentist): dẽ.tˈiʃ.tɐ

Voiceless consonants after s (/ʃ/) marked in red

Quick note on spelling: regarding the first sound pair (/ʃ/+/s/), the /s/ sound can only be produced by ç (that is, -sça, -sço, -sçu) or ce/ci (-sce; -sci), never by s+s, since ss when surrounded by vowels has a different sound altogether (see rule #2).

All forms of regular verbs ending in -scer provide us with four of these combinations (apart from -sçu, which is hypothetical, i.e. it doesn’t occur anywhere) – let’s use nascer (to be born) as an example:

  • [que] Eu/Ele/Ela nasça [present subjunctive]
  • Eu nasço [present indicative]
  • Ele/Ela nasce [present indicative]
  • Eu nasci [preterite]

Important! The letter z, when final, also sounds like ʃ:

  • [o] cartaz (billboard, sign): kɐɾ.tˈaʃ
  • [a] vez (turn): vˈeʃ
  • [a] a(c)triz (actress): ɐ.tɾˈiʃ
  • [a] voz (voice): vˈɔʃ
  • [a] luz (light): lˈuʃ

However, both s and z both revert back to /z/ when a word ending in s or z is directly followed by a word starting with a vowel/diphthong (see rule #2):

  • Os olhos (The eyes): uzˈɔʎuʃ
    • alone, os: uʃ
  • Dez homens (ten men): dɛzˈɔ.mɐ̃jʃ [when alone, h is always silent in EP]
    • alone, dez: dˈɛʃ

#4: When followed by a voiced consonant (/g/, /b/, /v/, /d/, /m/, /n/, /ʒ/, /l/, /ʀ/) in the middle of a word, sounds like /ʒ/ (the sound of and of beforeand i)

  • [a] esgrima (fencing): ɨʒ.gɾˈi.mɐ
  • Lisboa (Lisbon): liʒ.bˈo.ɐ
  • [o] desvio (detour, deviation): dɨʒ.vˈi.u
  • desde (since): dˈɐʒ.dɨ
  • [o/a] mesmo/a (the same): mˈɐʒ.mu
  • [o] cisne (swan): sˈiʒ.nɨ
  • [o] disjuntor (circuit breaker): diʒ.ʒũ.tˈoɾ
  • [o/a] eslovaco/a (Slovakian): iʒ.lu.vˈa.ku
  • [o/a] israelita (Israeli): iʒ.ʀa.ɛ.lˈi.tɐ

Voiced consonants after s (ʒ) marked in blue

4 thoughts on “Grammar Tips (#4): The sound of S(ilence)

  1. Mariano July 24, 2016 / 5:40 pm

    Hi Luis,
    I have a question about the verb ‘dizer’. In BP the spelling of ‘Ele/Ela/Voce diz’ is ‘jiz’; in EP following the rule of Z at the end of the word should be ‘dish’ or ‘diz’?



    • luisdomingos July 24, 2016 / 6:16 pm

      Hi, Mariano! Thank you for your very pertinent question and for following the blog!

      First of all, I’d like to highlight that you correctly noted in your phonetic transliteration that Ds in EP are never pronounced as English Js (the sound /dʒ/, of journey, age, jello) in native words.

      To answer your question, in standard EP “diz” can be pronounced both as “dish” and “diz”, just as I stated on the post itself (section “Important!” inside rule #3): If “diz” is at the end of a sentence/sentence fragment, the z is pronounced like “sh”; if it’s immediately followed by a word starting with a vowel sound, the z is pronounced like “z”. [If the word is followed by a consonant, rules #3 & 4 apply – the voiced/voiceless character of the following vowel determines the sound of “s” or “z”].

      Since this is a phonetic change, it works with all words that end in “s” or “z” regardless of their function – for example, in the [fairly weird] sentence “Os olhos olharam para as asas abertas em frente da casa” (The eyes looked towards the open wings in front of the house), all the final Ss would be pronounced as “z” because they’re all followed by vowels, but if you read each word individually you would have to do so with “sh”.

      Regarding consonants – and just to give an example – the z in “diz-me” (tell me) is pronounced with an English soft g sound, /ʒ/, because it’s followed by m (see rule #4); but the z in “diz qualquer coisa” (say something) is pronounced with /ʃ/ because it’s followed by a /k/ sound from q (see rule #3).

      I hope this explanation helped/made sense!


      • Mariano July 24, 2016 / 7:16 pm

        Thanks a lot, everything’s clearer now!

        I find these rules are a bit strange by now but I only need to get used to the sound of EP :-)


        • luisdomingos July 24, 2016 / 9:09 pm

          You’re welcome!

          That confusion’s perfectly understandable – hardly any native speaker is aware of this distinction (even I had to do a bit of searching to find that there were actual rules behind the things I’m used to just doing naturally).

          In time – as long as you stick with it, and find ways to listen to EP – the way the words meld together will start to make a lot more sense and will become a lot more euphonic (i.e. pleasing to hear).

          If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments or using the other tools I’ve set up for learners (Q&A form; email).

          Good luck with your studies (: Continuação de bons estudos!


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