The enigmatic Portuguese R (2013)
While sitting in the Panama City airport, waiting for my flight to Rio, one of Copa Airline’s Panamanian employees came on the intercom to announce that the flight to “Rrrrio de Haneiro” would be boarding soon. The long rolled R caused several of the Brazilians around me to turn to each other and chuckle. Later, while waiting to take off, the Brazilian flight crew announced that the trip to “Hiu gee Zhaneiru” would take about 7 hours.
Nothing could better highlight the stark differences in pronunciation between Portuguese and Spanish, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the sound of R. A flight like this might be one of the first situations in which many tourists encounter the beautiful, enigmatic Portuguese R.
As with many languages, R in Portuguese can take on a kaleidoscope of different sounds depending on its placement within a word and the dialect of the speaker. It’s pretty much impossible to give any hard and fast rules that apply across all dialects. But I’m going to try here to give you a sense of the huge variation that exists.
(If you are not as fascinated by rhotics as I am, or are looking at this article and thinking “tl;dr”, you may prefer the short version of this article)
Ok, let’s just consider for a moment how weird and cool R is. Linguists have a special name for all the R sounds of the world: rhotics, which are a rather elusive category because there is no definitive phonological way to define what is and isn’t a rhotic — there’s not a single trait that all rhotic sounds have in common, except for some kind of association with the letter R in one or more languages. A sound represented by the letter R in one language could be represented by a completely different letter in another language, or it could be missing from that other language altogether.
R sounds are fascinating to me not just because they are so diverse, but because they are one of the strongest markers of regional dialect, native vs non-native accent, and social class within any single language (consider a posh Queen’s English “yahd” vs. a nasal midwestern American “yard” vs. a rolling Scottish “yarrrd”).
If you’re really interested in the mysteries of rhotics (and man, who isn’t?), I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia articles on Rhotic Consonants and Gutteral R. The latter includes an excellent discussion of R in Portuguese and how it has varied across time and place. And these two wonderful episodes of the podcast Tá Falado are all about variations in the Brazilian R, letting you hear how three very different speakers from Pernambuco, São Paulo, and Rio pronounce their R’s.
Before we get into Portuguese specifically, let’s talk about a few of the diverse ways R can be pronounced in European languages. Learning a bit about what distinguishes these sounds, and what your tongue and vocal cords are doing when they pronounce them, can help you with your pronunciation in all kinds of languages.
I’ll be using symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to unambiguously refer to each sound, since some of the names I give the sounds are my own invention and not widely used. I’ll use [square brackets] to indicate sounds using IPA symbols. Later on, I will use
The Six R’s
There are six ways that people who speak European languages commonly pronounce their R’s. First up are three alveolar R’s:
The American R
The common midwestern R, used pretty much exclusively by Americans. Linguists call this a voiced alveolar approximant or a retroflex R because the mid part of the tongue rises up to approach (but does not actually touch) the alveolar ridge — that bumpy part on the roof of your mouth. Meanwhile, the lips are rounded into an O shape, and the vocal cords are vibrating. This is a rather difficult consonant for non-native speakers to achieve; Americans, on the other hand, may need to train themselves to not make this sound, because nothing makes you sound like an American like an alveolar approximant.
This is known as the “rolling r” or voiced alveolar trill. The tip of the tongue is placed near the alveolar ridge and air is directed over it so it vibrates. Meanwhile, the lips are neutral and the vocal cords vibrate. It’s a sound found in dozens of languages, but most famously in Spanish, Italian, and Scots English.
The Tap (or Flap)
This sound, used in dozens of languages from Spanish to Turkish to Japanese, is called a voiced alveolar tap or flap. It’s very similar to the rolling R, except that the tip of the tongue taps the alveolar ridge just one time, very quickly, instead of a sustained roll. This is the other common R sound in Spanish, and it’s one that you’ll need to be very comfortable with in order to speak Portuguese.
This video shows the difference between the three alveolar R sounds: the approximant, the trill, and the tap.
We just looked at three different alveolar R sounds that are pronounced with the tongue raised towards the top of the mouth. These next two sounds are articulated more in the back of the mouth, so I’ll call them gutteral R’s:
This is the classic French/German R which has challenged many an English speaker attempting to find their way to a restaurant in Paris. Unlike the three alveolar R’s we’ve covered above, this R is a thick sound produced in the back of the throat. Linguists call it a voiced uvular fricative. The tongue is pulled down and back toward the uvula, the mouth is very open compared to an American R, and the vocal cords are vibrating. What comes out is sometimes described as a gargling sound.
This video gives an example.
Voiceless Gutteral R
[x] [χ] [h]
This is the other gutteral R, which is so common in Brazil it could almost be called the “Brazilian R”. Depending on where you are in Brazil, you’ll hear one of three different sounds for this particular phoneme, and they’re all produced in the back of the throat like the French Gutteral R, but the difference is that unlike the French R, these are all voiceless. The three sounds are:
- the voiceless velar fricative [x]
- the voiceless uvular fricative [χ]
- the voiceless glottal fricative [h]
The [h] sound is just that, a normal English h in words like hello and hope. [χ] is a thicker “hissing cat” sound, identical to the h in English human, humid, hue, hew. It’s kind of like an h and a y sound put together. English speakers make this sound all the time, but because we only pronounce it when we see the letters “hu” or “pu”, it can be confusing to encounter it in other contexts – say, at the start of a word like Rio. The third sound [x] isn’t found in English, but many English speakers are familiar with this sound from common words in other languages.
The difference between the velar [x] and uvular [χ] fricatives is subtle. Both are represented in most languages (not Portuguese) by the letters ch or x. But the uvular fricative [χ] is a very smooth sound, just as smooth as [f] or [s], like the ch in German ich. It’s the sound you make to imitate a hissing cat. The velar fricative [x], on the other hand, sounds more rough, scratchy or gargle-y, like the ch in Hebrew Channukah, the ch in Welsh achos, ch in Scots loch, the x in Russian хороший or the x in Greek xi. You can also think of [x] as the unvoiced version of the French Gutteral R. For example, compare French restaurant and Portuguese restaurante on Forvo. Or listen to how Gal Costa pronounces Rio, morrendo, Redentor with [χ] in Samba do Avião, but João Gilberto uses [x].
Anyway, the important thing to know is that you don’t necessarily need to be able to hear the difference between the three unvoiced gutteral Rs, because all three are interchangeable in Portuguese — none is more right than the others.
Finally, some speakers may just drop their R’s altogether, as in the British English pronunciation of “yard” [yahd] or a Bostoner saying “car” [ka:h]. This is a defining characteristic of British/Australian English as well as the New England dialect in the U.S. — so characteristic that linguists call these the non-rhotic dialects of English. While these speakers don’t pronounce the R in certain situations, they usually do lengthen the preceding vowel “the caah is in the yaahd” or insert a very slight h sound in place of the R. French speakers also drop their R’s in certain circumstances, often at the end of a word like regarder. Brazilians may also drop R’s when they come at the end of an infinitive like falar.
R in Portuguese
So let’s review the six common ways of pronouncing R in European languages:
- American R [ɹ]
- Spanish Rolling R [r]
- Tap/Flap [ɾ]
- French Gutteral R [ʁ]
- Voiceless Gutteral R [h, χ, x]
- Silent R
By now you may be wondering which of these apply to Portuguese. The answer?
All of them.
Yup. Depending on where you go in the lusophone world, you can find Portuguese speakers pronouncing their R’s in just about any way imaginable. What this means for Portuguese learners is that there is no wrong way to pronounce an R, as long as you stick to a few simple rules which I’m about to go over. You can choose based on which sound is easiest for you to produce, which is most euphonious to your ear, which dialect your tutor or spouse or friend speaks, or which country or region you’re going to visit. I’ll give some broad generalizations below about which parts of the lusophone world use which types of R.
Which sound is used for R depends on where the letter R falls in a word. This is the idea behind phonemes. Here is where I’m going to start using
In all Portuguese dialects, there are three different phonemes associated with the letter R. Let’s call them
Letter -> (phoneme) -> Sound
Phonemes are a way of saying, If you see a letter “r” is this situation, use Sound A for it. If you see “r” in this other situation, use a different Sound B for it. But Sound A and B are not fixed — they will vary depending on the specific dialect.
Letter r at the beginning of a word = Phoneme
Letter r in between two vowels = Phoneme
For example, both the letter “r” in rio and in garrafa represent the
If you speak Spanish, you’ll see that the usage of
When it comes to
You use the [ɾ] sound in two situations:
- whenever r appears between two vowels (barata, tarifa)
- whenever r appears after a consonant but before a vowel (cristo, fábrica)
Basically, it’s any r that comes in the middle of a syllable, so long as it’s not double rr. These are the same two situations in which you would use the tap in Spanish. Now try saying these Portuguese words with a crisp alveolar tap:
quatro, trem, carioca, caro, para, barato, preço, praia, siri, xadrez
The second rhotic phoneme in Portuguese,
- whenever letter R is doubled (guerra, correr, carregar)
- whenever R appears at the beginning of a word (rio, restaurante, roda)
- whenever it appears at the beginning of a syllable, after a consonant (honrar, Israel) — this doesn’t happen too often in Portuguese.
These are the same situations in which Spanish speakers use a Rolling R.
When it comes to
Phoneme 3: <-r>
The last phoneme is used when R appears at the end of a syllable (corpo, parte, quarto) or the end of a word (falar, doutor).
Here too there is great variety. Some Portuguese speakers pronounce it as [ɾ]; others (cariocas for example) pronounce it as a light [h] or a thick [χ]; still others (paulistanos and caipiras) will actually use a nasal American R sound [ɹ]; and others will drop it entirely — a Silent R! Unless you’re going for a paulistano/caipira accent, a good suggestion is that this sound should be lighter than the
Just to make things a little more complicated, it’s good to remind ourselves that words are rarely found in isolation, but usually appear between other words. <-r> can turn into
Ok. So everyone uses a tap for
The most common Brazilian pronunciation of
My advice, then, is to choose the dialect and accent you want to learn, and listen to how speakers with that accent pronounce their Rs. For example, on Forvo you can listen to how a few dozen Brazilians pronounce the initial R in Rio de Janeiro. (While you’re listening, notice too that some palatalize the de and others don’t). But don’t sweat it too much: no matter which R you say, you’ll be understood just fine all across Brazil.
That said, there are some distinctive regional variations that deserve a mention here:
Rio de Janeiro
Residents of Rio (cariocas) speak a very distinctive dialect, which is also called carioca. Aside from abundant palatalization and vowel raising (de > gee), epenthetic vowels (mas > maish) and a lisping chiado (duas copas > duashh copashh), a defining aspect is the use of a very thick velar [x] or uvular [χ] for all
= ɾ , <-r> = [χ], [x]
São Paulo and the interior of Brazil
The residents of the rural, hilly interior areas of central Brazil speak with what is known as a caipira accent, which best translates to English as “hillbilly”. This accent is unmistakable because of the use of the alveolar approximant [ɹ], aka the American English R, for <-r> (but not
= [ɾ] = [χ], [h]
- <-r> = [ɹ]
Rio Grande do Sul and the south of Brazil
The farther south you go in Brazil, the more the local dialect tends to resemble Spanish. I’m not sure of the exact reasons for this, but my guess is it has something to do with the fact that Brazil has always had strong trade connections with the Spanish-speaking countries of Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay along it’s southern border, whereas the other parts of Brazil are very isolated from their Spanish speaking neighbors.
In Brazil’s southern states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná, where many German and Italian immigrants to Brazil settled and cattle ranching (pecuária) dominates the economy, people speak with a dialect known as gaúcho [ga’ushu] (cowboy). This dialect is defined, in part, by the use of the Spanish Rolling R (alveolar trill) for the
Aside from the pronunciation of R, Gaúchos don’t palatalize de/di/te/ti at the ends of words, so cidade sounds like [si’dadi] instead of standard Brazilian [si’dadʒi]. Along the border between Rio Grande do Sul and Uruguay, this gaúcho dialect mixes with riverense Spanish, creating a hybrid Portunhol dialect called fronteiriço. In the video below, listen for the Rolling R and the Tap in words like carteira and parque:
, <-r> = [ɾ] = [r]
Residents of the mountainous state of Minas Gerais speak a choppy dialect marked by distinctive vocabulary and clipped words. They’ll often just drop the <-r> entirely from the ends of words (falar > fala).
= [ɾ] = [χ], [h]
- <-r> = silent
Take this with a grain of salt, because I am not as familiar with the European dialect. But as I understand it, the most common pronunciation of
In more rural parts of Portugal, especially the north, the Rolling R/alveolar trill [r] is used, which parallels the use of the trill in the neighboring Galician-speaking parts of Spain. In all areas, R appearing at the end of a syllable, before a consonant (corpo, parque) is pronounced with a Tap. Listen to this Galician speaker pronouncing Rio.
= [ɾ] = [ʁ]
- <-r> = (?) <- maybe a reader can fill me in here!
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