Ask Luís! (#13): Stress and vowel height changes in different verb forms

Hello, everyone! Today I bring you a question about sound changes and stress patterns in verb forms. A quite pertinent question, something that we usually just take for granted but that can be hard for someone to learn. Here’s the question:

Olá Luís,
Gosto muito do seu blog!!
Há umas regras gerais sobre como pronunciar os vogais nas palavras como ‘meter’ e ‘ganhar’ etc que não mudam no processo de inflexão?
Por exemplo, metem, mete, meto, e metam (de Conjuntivo), e ganhava, ganho, ganham, e ganhe, ganhem (de Conjuntivo), etc. São muitas diferenças entre EP e BP?
Obrigado pela ajuda!


Follow me after the jump to learn more about this!

Hi, Huawen! Thank you so much for the kind words and for following the blog!

I’m still in the process of gathering my thoughts and information to write a more comprehensive article on stress and vowel changes in European Portuguese, but for now I’ll try to answer your question with the bare basics and solely using verb forms as examples. Since verb forms have very specific endings and patterns, they don’t cover all the rules of the language, but they’re a good start.

The basic rules you should know are:

  • European Portuguese is a stress-timed language, meaning there’s a clear distinction in emphasis between the stressed syllable and the rest; in EP, this also manifests with certain vowels being used only (or mostly) in stressed and unstressed positions.
  • Stress can only fall on the three last syllable, but it normally falls on the second-to-last syllable; but there are many exceptions, including words ending in -r (like verb infinitives), -l, -s/z, -ão (like 3rd person plural forms in the future indicative, and certain irregular verbs in the present indicative) which carry their stress on their last syllable;
  • A different stress than what one would expect is generally marked with a diacritic; `´ the acute and grave accents mark a raised stressed vowel, ^ the circumflex a lower stress vowel. All words with a stress on the third-to-last word have a diacritic (for example, verb forms [nós] estávamos[se nós] corrêssemos[nós] corríamos)
  • A single vowel in words with one syllable is pronounced unstressed (i.e. unless there isn’t any diacritics telling us to pronounce it differently); semantically relevant examples of this change are the pairs da (preposition) vs. dá (form of verb dar, “to give”, present indicative and imperative); de (preposition) vs. dê (again, form of dar, imperative).

Regarding one of your questions, many of these rules don’t apply to Brazilian Portuguese at all, which is more syllable-timed, i.e. like French, each syllable has more or less the same emphasis, and the changes between stressed and unstressed vowels are less noticeable.

The Portuguese oral vowels (which are the ones that showcase this difference between stress and their quality) are as follows:

Oral vowels

Vowel Letters used to represent it Approximate sound in English (if applicable)
[a] a, á, à  BrEn Albert
[ɐ] a, e¹  close to the in about
[ɛ] e, é  first in elephant
[e] e, ê  AusEn bed
[ə] e  —
[i] i, í me
[ɔ] o, ó first o in obvious
[o] o, ô AmEn omen (just the first sound, not the whole diphthong, oʊ)
[u] o, u too (but short)

¹ Before palatal consonants (nh and lh) in EP’s standard central dialect (spoken from Lisbon to Coimbra), [e] to other EP speakers.

This table will also be a part of that article on Portuguese vowels I’m writing, together with the following chart that helps explain the connections between stressed and unstressed oral vowels in Portuguese (i.e. the from the previous chart): as you can see, unstressed vowels (the ones being pointed by the arrows) are usually pronounced with the mouth more closed than stressed vowels. The letters i and u, which when alone are always pronounced exactly like the sounds [i] and [u], can be both stressed or unstressed.

That said, it’s still sometimes hard to know which stressed syllable to choose when the language doesn’t mark it graphically; if you apply the rules I gave you earlier, you’ll get the grasp of most verb forms, but in some cases you’ll just have to learn how to pronounce a certain verb by heart. For example, with verbs with infinitives ending in -er, this last, stressed vowel of the infinitive is always the closed [e], for example, comer is pronounced [ku.mer], meter is [mə.ter], etc.

A few other verb-specific rules include:

  • the 3rd person singular imperative will generally help you learn the correct present subjunctive pronunciation (since the present subjunctive forms are based on it; for regular verbs, the form is the same as the 1st person singular of the present indicative); for example, “[eu] amo” (PRES.IND) has a closed A vowel, ɐ, therefore [que] eu ame” (PRES.SUBJ.) has a closed vowel too, but “[eu] abro” has an open A vowel, a, therefore “[que] eu abra” has a open vowel too.
  • in the past (imperfect) subjunctive and future subjunctive, the regular 1st conjugation verbs (ending in -ar) and the irregular verbs ending in -er usually have a stressed open vowel (-asse/-ar, -esse/-er); compare amasse/amar [a] and tivesse/tiver [ɛ] with the regular 2nd conjugation verbs (ending in -er) vivesse [e] and comesse [e], where the stressed vowel is closed. The same pattern applies to the forms of the preterite indicative (pretérito perfeito, i.e. past simple) where the stressed syllable in also the one in the infinitive, namely the 2nd singular (tu), the 1st plural (nós) and the 3rd plural (eles/elas/vocês); example: [tu] amaste / [tu] tiveste vs. [tu] viveste / [tu] comeste; [nós] amámos, [nós] tivemos vs. [nós] vivemos / [nós] comemos, [eles/elas/vocês] amaram / tiveram vs. viveram vs. comeram.
  • Verbs with the radical -ava in the imperfect indicative have an open stressed A vowel on the second-to-last syllable throughout (1st person plural – ávamos); verbs starting with -ia have their stress on the [i] sound throughout (1st person plural –íamos).

I’m sorry if this wasn’t clear – I was writing these rules on the fly as they came to me – I’ll try to systematize them better in the future. Let me know if there’s something you don’t understand or would like to have explained; I’d very much like if we could use the comments like the Duolingo sentence discussions, i.e. as an opportunity for you to ask specific questions about something you don’t understand and where my answers can help you out get the pieces right, one individual piece at a time.

Please help me make this article better! Would it help if I systematized the changes based on tense and mood (present, preterite, imperfect indicative/subjunctive/conditional/imperative), conjugation, person, or a combination of the 3? Let me know in the comments, thank you!

6 thoughts on “Ask Luís! (#13): Stress and vowel height changes in different verb forms

  1. julkastarter May 20, 2017 / 3:25 pm

    Olá, Luís! Agradeço muito as tuas explicações. Não entendi tudo, mas as tabelas são muito úteis.
    Quero fazer uma pergunta sobre acento. Tu escreveste: “Stress can only fall on the three last syllable, but it normally falls on the second-to-last syllable; but there are many exceptions, including words ending in -r (like verb infinitives), -l, -s/z, -m/-ão (like 3rd person plural forms) which carry their stress on their last syllable”. Mas como as formas dos verbos que terminam em -am e -em?

    Liked by 2 people

    • luisdomingos May 20, 2017 / 4:57 pm

      Olá, Yuliya!

      Well, by “-m” in the quote above I was referring to -em/-am, which are the most common 3rd person plural endings (together with -ão in the present for certain irregular verbs and all in the future indicative).

      In these cases, the last vowel is always a nasal diphthong (ɐ̃j for -em/-ém, ɐ̃j.ɐ̃j/e.ɐ̃j for -êm/-eem; ɐ̃w for -am). Maybe it’s not entirely correct to say that the stress lies on this last syllable in these words (apart from -ão, as I explained in my second Grammar Tips post), just that they sound different because of the nasalisation.

      Just to prevent confusion, I’ll erase this -m and try to work on making the article easier to read / more systematically/grammatically consistent.

      By the way, would it help if I explained the rules based on tense (presente, pretérito, futuro), conjugation (verbs ending in -ar, -er, -ir), person (eu, tu, ele/ela, nós…), or a combination of the 3? Which do you think is more important for someone learning the language? I believe it would help me knowing how you study just to adapt the article to all of your needs as students. Obrigado!

      Liked by 1 person

      • julkastarter May 21, 2017 / 11:35 am

        Olá, Luís!
        I cannot say if this hepls or not. Yet the only part that I did not understand in your article was the one that concerned present subjunctive pronunciation. :( I think this is because I have not learned this tense yet.
        So if you plan to use this way of explanations, I think it would be better to use simple tenses, that are studied first (presente, pretérito).
        Anyway, your articles are useful and everyone can find something to learn.

        Liked by 2 people

        • luisdomingos May 21, 2017 / 6:40 pm

          Thank you for the feedback! I’ll try to do a different post taking all your comments into account, probably under “Grammar Tips” (: Good luck with your studies, and have a great weekend!


          • huawen May 22, 2017 / 4:43 pm

            Hi Luis,
            Thank you for this! I apologize that my Portuguese isn’t good enough at the moment so I drop back to English for now. I sure look forward to your further elaboration that you intended when you have a chance.
            I found it hard to figure out
            1) how to pronounce the first vowel in such words as “meter, mete, meto, metem and metam” etc, (every word is different or there are regularity that suggests which one is pronounced open or closed) and
            2) if there are particular requirements or rules that govern the indicative and the conjunctive (e.g. metem vs metam) – I assumed that they should sound differently?
            Thanks again!

            Liked by 1 person

            • luisdomingos May 22, 2017 / 6:46 pm

              Hi Huawen,
              You’re welcome! I will try to make another post which a more systematic approach whenever I can. I’m sure there are specific phonological rules that help explain why certain words sound a certain way (and not just the logic system I wrote as “rules”), and I’ll try to find an explanation for that if there is one.

              Good luck with your studies,

              Liked by 1 person

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