Grammar Tips (#5): X marks the spot (for five different sounds)

Together with s (and ss), x is one of the most multipurpose letters in the Portuguese alphabet – it can stand for at least five different sounds or sound clusters, and those pronunciations can sometimes change from region to region. In this post, I’ll present only the standard as spoken in Lisbon (with a non-standard exception at the end, but explained as such), which will hopefully make things less complicated.

#1: When starting a word, x is pretty straightforward: read it as /ʃ/ (a “sh” sound in English)

  • [o] xadrez (chess): ʃɐ.dɾˈeʃ
  • [o] xaile (shawl): ʃˈaj.lɨ
  • [o] xarope (syrup): ʃɐ.ɾˈɔ.pɨ
  • [a] xenofobia (xenophobia): ʃɨ.nɔ.fu.bˈi.ɐ

The same sound is also present with the digraphs ch (anywhere in the sentence, except Hebrew names like Baruch) and sh (only in loanwords like [o] show, [o] ashram, [o] shopping, [o] share):

  • [o] chá (tea): ʃˈa
  • [a] chávena (cup, teacup): ʃˈa.vɨ.nɐ
  • [a] chuva (rain): ʃˈu.vɐ
  • [o] funcho (fennel): fˈũ.ʃu
  • achar (to find; to have an opinion on): ɐ.ʃˈaɾ

To make things slightly more complicated, x can also read as /ʃ/ inside a word, making the graffic distinction between x and ch a guessing game – you’ll have to learn the words by heart; for example, [o] xá is also a word (pronounced in exactly the same way as [o] chá), meaning shah.

#2: X may also end some words, mostly borrowings from Greek and Latin. Just like in English, those words are pronounced /ks/

  • [o] cérvix (cervix): ˈsɛrviks
  • [a] fénix (phoenix): ˈfɛniks
  • [o] tórax (thorax): ˈtɔraks
  • [o] lux (lux, a unit of measurement): ˈluks
  • [o] órix (oryx): ˈɔriks

#3: It’s inside the words that we get into trouble: x has at least five different sounds allocated to it.

  • /ʃ/ – see also rule #1;
    • baixo/a (low, short): bˈaj.ʃu
    • [o] mexerico (gossip): mɨ.ʃɨ.ɾˈi.ku
    • [a] bexiga (bladder): bɨ.ʃˈi.gɐ
    • [a] caixa (box) / [o/a] caixa (cashier): kˈaj.ʃɐ
  • /ks/ – see also rule #2
    • [o] sexo (sex): sˈɛ
    • [a] dislexia (dyslexia): diʒ.lɛk.sˈi.ɐ
    • [a] axila (armpit): ɐk.sˈi.lɐ
    • tóxico/a (toxic): tˈɔ
  • /s/ – the same sound as initial sss and ç inside a word, and ce/ci:
    • [o/a] máximo/a (the highest degree/amount): mˈ
    • [o/a] próximo/a (next): pɾˈɔ
  • /z/ – the same sound as a single s surrounded by vowels, and (obviously):
    • [o] exílio (exile)
    • [o] exame (examination, test)
    • existir (to exist)
  • /jʃ/ – 
    • ex- (ex-, prefix): ɐ
    • exce(p)to (except): ɐ.sˈɛ(p).tu
    • [a] exposição (exposition): ɐ.pu.zi.sˈɐ̃w

The digraph -xc (usually in exc-; see excepto above) can sometimes be condensed into /ʃ/ (instead of /jʃ.s/ as presented above), especially in faster registers of speech or among certain dialects; this isn’t standard, but I find it relevant since people can switch between the standard pronunciation and this alternative from time to time (I do too when I’m speaking fast).

#4: You’ll have to learn how these words sound mostly by heart, but there are a few rules you can follow.

  • An x following en- will always sound like “sh”, /ʃ/:
    • [a] enxada (hoe, an agricultural tool): ẽ.ʃˈa.dɐ
    • [a] enxaqueca (migraine): ẽ.ʃɐ.kˈɛ.kɐ
    • [o] enxame (swarm of bees): ẽ.ʃˈɐ.mɨ
    • [o] enxofre (sulfur): ẽ.ʃˈo.fɾɨ
  • An following me- in a position other than final will always sound like “sh”, /ʃ/, as well:
    • [o/a] mexicano/a (Mexican): mɨ.ʃi.kˈɐ.nu
    • [o] mexilhão (mussel): mɨ.ʃi.ʎˈɐ̃w
    • mexer (to touch, to mix, to stir): mɨ.ʃˈeɾ
    • remexer (to rummage): ʀɨ.mɨ.ʃˈeɾ



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s