Portuguese is disappearing, one vowel at a time

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Here in Macau, a few people still speak Portuguese. (And even fewer speak Macanese Patuá, which mixes Portuguese with Cantonese, Malay, Sinhalese, and a few other linguistic ingredients.) But according to Isabel Trancoso, who is attending the same conference here that I am, the local variety of Portuguese lacks the extreme reductions that are transforming the Iberian version.

She sent me the following example, taken from the CORAL (map task) corpus:

…depois tenho a grade de ferro …
"afterwards I have the iron fence"

The nominal pronunciation in IPA, according to Isabel, should be something like

/dəˈpojʃ ˈtɐɲw ɐ ˈgradə də ˈfɛʀu/

Here it is as synthesized by Acapela's Portuguese voice:

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But what was actually produced omitted or modified many of those segments (I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what the IPA transcription should be):

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Phenomena of this general kind have been documented in varieties of Portuguese before, e.g. David Silva, "The variable deletion of unstressed vowels in Faialense Portuguese", Language Variation and Change, Oct. 1997.

But it seems that a sound change in progress is rapidly multiplying such reductions and deletions in Iberian Portuguese  – Isabel reports that whenever Fernando Pereira visits Portugal, he says "now I see that you've deleted a few more vowels". She also suggested that people who speak the Portuguese-like language of neighboring Galicia have increasing difficulty in understanding the way the people in Lisbon actually talk now.

I've always had a kind of affection for optional reduction and deletion phenomena — it's like watching Latin turn into French before your eyes. And this is one area where non-native speakers have a certain advantage, since they are not subject to the "phoneme restoration effect".

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45 Comments »

  1. Lazar said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    It's interesting here in Massachusetts, because we have significant numbers of both Portuguese- and Brazilian-descended people – the former using an [ʃ]-heavy and reduction-prone accent that gave us the local pronunciation of chorizo/chouriço sausages as "shareese", but the latter lacking these Iberian features.

  2. Dw said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    In Brazil I've noticed that it's very common for Cariocas to delete the last vowel of words like "noite", giving /nɔɪtʃ/ instead of /nɔɪtʃi/.

    Incidentally, "afterwards I have the iron fence" seems like a classic "Postilion sentence".

  3. Ron said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    I've always had a kind of affection for optional reduction and deletion phenomena — it's like watching Latin turn into French before your eyes.

    I'm not a linguistics professional but observations like that keep me coming back to blogs like this.

  4. Rube said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    What Ron said said.

  5. Avinor said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    Or like watching Danish turn into Kamelåså.

  6. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    The r in "ferro" is different in the synthesized and real-world examples, too–the synth produces what I'd called a trilled r while the example in the wild is more (forgive the non-technical language) guttural. I heard the second type more often during my two-week visit to Portugal in 1977.

  7. Chris Sundita said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    Fascinating! I started out learning European Portuguese in high school and had bought myself one of those Teach Yourself books with cassettes. For some reason or another, I was not satisfied with the dialogs in the book and tracked down a native speaker to have him make recordings for me. The amount of vowel deletions – in comparison to the perfectly enunciated TY dialogs – blew me away. I've since switched to Brazilian Portuguese and got used to their way of talking, though, so I have to make quite an effort in understanding European Portuguese.

    Your analogy with Latin turning into French is spot on.

  8. SANDY Poole said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    My grandparents were from Lisbon and I grew up speaking the language. I noticed at an early age that people who learn the language from a book did not did not pronounce the words as the true portuguese, but this applies to all languages learned from a book etc. I enjoyed your article.

  9. Stephen said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    I'd go with ['poʲʃ 'tẽʲ ɐ 'grad ɐ 'feʀʷ] for transcribing that second audio clip! I generally find I can understand Brazilian speakers, but everytime I hear Portuguese speakers from Portugal I have the same reaction … "Where did everything go???"

  10. desaparecem as vogais (texto em inglês) | AICL – Associação Internacional dos Colóquios da Lusofonia said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    [...] Portuguese is disappearing, one vowel at a time [...]

  11. leoboiko said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    @Dw: Well, Brazilian Portuguese typically reduces unstressed word-final /i/ /e/ to [ɪ] (and /o/ /u/ to [ʊ])—and these reduced vowels tend to have lower amplitude and shorter duration. Also, /ti/ (and /tɪ/) is realized as [tʃi] ([tʃɪ]) in most regions, including standard São Paulo and Rio. What's more, our final sibilants tend to be unvoiced. So it's quite a natural process from underlying [ˈnoj.te] → [ˈnoj.tɪ] → ['noj.tʃɪ] → [ˈnoj.tʃ] (I don't think we use /ɔ/ in this case?). You'll hear this process in many variants, though the lenght and distinctiveness of Carioca /ʃ/ /x/ are legendary.

  12. Pedro said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    Both the synthesized and the attested pronunciations are common and possible. The attested is typical of a slightly faster speech rate. Nothing new here.

  13. Theodore said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    How do you say "Je ne regrette rien" in Portuguese? (See GKP's http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005429.html)

  14. Luiz said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    I am very glad to see this article, as a Brazilian Portuguese native speaker, I face the question about the differences between the Iberian Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese very often. My response is exactly what this article talks about, the fact that in Portugal people cut some vowels…

    Just recently in a Portuguese bakery, I struggled to understand the name of a cake. The cake was "Bolo Rei", which the attendant pronounced as "Bollrei" (which is obviously the "correct" way to say it as it is a traditional cake in Portugal)

  15. Rubrick said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    It's truly like watching Norwegian turn into English before your eyes.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

    It does sound like Portuguese is following the path that French started on a long time ago.

    Theodore, thanks for the link to Je ne regrette rien as perceived by GKP.

    I wonder if GKP had a chance to look at the written words of the song, since he thought that in the first line (but not the second one), Edith Piaf sang Non, jnrgrette rien, omitting the first 3 schwas (an impossibility in any kind of French). In fact the words after the first Non are not those of the song's title but the trisyllabic phrase rien de rien (approximately 'nothing whatsoever, absolutely nothing', a less formal French form than the English equivalent):

    Non, rien de rien,
    Non, je ne regrette rien,
    Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait,
    ni le mal,
    Tout ça m'est bien égal (…)

    No, nothing whatsoever,
    No, there's nothing I regret,
    Not the good things that've been done me,
    nor the bad things,
    I couldn't care less about all that (…)

    If you listen to Piaf's songs in general, she enunciates very precisely, and rarely leaves out the schwas and ne's which would be omitted in casual pronunciation. Thus she sings je ne re-gret-te rien, when in her own speech she would have said jen' re-grett' rien if careful, and either je r'-grett' rien or j' re-grett' rien more casually.

  17. Lazar said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    @Theodore: French can present some tricky sequences like "c'est que je ne te le devais pas", which Canepari cites in his phonetic treatment of French. He's rather unorthodox (see his idiosyncratic phonetic alphabet), but on questions like this I think he provides some of the best guidance that one can find online.

  18. postagincluded said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    I became aware of this recently when a TV panel game (UK) set panellists the task of recognising sitcoms in foreign language versions. I'm no linguist but I was surprised not to recognise that the version of "Keeping up Appearances" was in Portuguese as I'm a fan of Brazilian music. In fact I didn't even recognise the language as Romance, it sounded so "clipped". Now I know why.

    If this is really happening as quickly as the article suggests then vowels may soon become extinct in Portugal. Perhaps the Republic of Georgia could send a team of linguists to help the Portuiguese cope…….

  19. Larry Anderson said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 12:20 am

    @ Lazar:

    Pronouncing "ch" as [ʃ] is not an Iberian feature. Brazilians pronounce it that way too. What's more of (but still not exclusively) an Iberian feature is pronouncing syllable final "s" as [ʃ]. But even that's found in some coastal areas of Brazil like Rio for example.

  20. Meghan said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 2:29 am

    And this "disappearing" is not only at the segmental level. What Frota refers to as Standard European Portuguese shows sparse pitch accent distribution (17-27% of IP-internal stressed syllables are pitch accented). Brazilian Portuguese and Northern European Portuguese prefer higher tonal density (one pitch accent per word).

  21. Sidney Wood said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    French is definitely an excellent comparison, I've never ceased to marvel how augustum became just [u] with perfect regularity.

  22. Avinor said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    Are there then any parallels in European Portuguese to the French tendency of adding on redundant words to resolve ambiguities created by the reductions: "Qu'est-ce que c'est?", "aujourd'hui"… ?

  23. marie-lucie said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    augustum became just [u]

    Actually, it became [ut], but the [t] is now optional.

  24. anative said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    thank you, marie-lucie, for the piaf lyrics. I followed that link and felt very confused, as if i hadn'r know those lyrics by heart since adolescence. Had I been wrong for so many decades?
    As for the Portuguese, as a Brazilian i have the feeling that the difference between european and brazilian portuguese seems to be increasing. Does anybody has any idea why? why do languages evolve in different directions, if that is what is happening? Does the same paralel applies to american english and european english?

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    Are we talking about aôut here? Who pronounces it [ut]?

  26. LDavidH said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    FWIW, I remember being taught that "août" can be pronounce [u] or [ut]; I assumed it depended on regional or personal preferences.

  27. RP said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    I find it difficult to tell whether there is actually a vowel at all between "grad" and "feʀ" – sometimes I think I can hear it, then I listen again and think I might have imagined it.

    As far as "août" is concerned, the dictionaries I've checked give both pronunciations and indicate no preference or difference in usage. (I think I'd pronounce the "t", but as I'm not a native speaker, and have never lived in a French-speaking country, that doesn't tell us much.) In "French Inside Out" (originally "Le français dans tous les sens", but I have only the English translation), Henriette Walter listed "août" among a number of other words ("ananas", "but", "cerf", "chenil", etc) and commented "The final consonant is pronounced by some people and not by others… A recent survey on the pronunciation of a group of highly educated people of all ages living in Paris shows that, for all these words, usage varies considerably: it is the less frequent words (such as 'chenil' or 'cerf') which are pronounced for the most part with the final consonant sounded, whereas, for the more frequent words (such as 'persil' or 'sourcil'), it is the pronunciation without a final consonant which is most widespread."

    When I checked a descriptivist source (Larousse, "Dictionnaire des difficultés de la langue française", 2001 edition), I found no acknowledgement that a "t" might be pronounced, but instead the surprising comment: "'août' se prononce 'oû' plutôt que 'aou' (Acad.)".

  28. RP said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    (Actually when I said descriptivist, I meant prescriptivist.)

  29. MBD said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    RP: Per the Dictionnaire de l'Academie:

    aoû se prononce ou plutôt que aou ; t se fait parfois entendre

  30. Sidney Wood said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    To marie-lucie regarding aôut, and my "augustum became just [u]", and her "actually, it became [ut], but the [t] is now optional":

    The others have already said it.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    Oops, I put the circumflex on the wrong vowel! How embarrassing.

  32. RP said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    @MBD, Thanks for that. The reason the comment surprised me is that I wouldn't have expected anyone to think that it might be pronounced "aou" in the first place. The bit about the "t" sometimes being pronounced seems more likely to be useful to the average person, but this second remark wasn't quoted by the Larousse book.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    RP: "I wouldn't have expected anyone to think that it might be pronounced "aou" in the first place"

    Why not?

    There is a song dating from the time of Napoleon, called Le trente-et-un du mois d'août, in which the name of the month is indeed pronounced "aou" (in two syllables of course – perhaps you meant a diphthong [aw] ?). Each line has eight syllables, divided into two sections of four syllables, thus the first line, which serves as the title of the song:

    le – tren – te et – un
    du – mois – d'a – oût.

    (incidentally, the final t is not pronounced here – août rhymes with nous in the next line)

    The song celebrates a historical event, the daring seizure by a French privateer of an English frigate that was not only bigger but much more heavily armed.

  34. RP said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 12:57 am

    I just thought that the people who would be consulting the Dictionnaire des difficultés de la langue française would be either native speakers or people who know French quite well, and I didn't think they would be likely to be imagine that the "a" might be pronounced, any more than an English speaker would expect to be told by a usage manual that "'two' is pronounced 'too' and not 'twoo'." Certainly, most English dictionaries include pronunciations for every word, but dictionaries of usage are a different matter.

    I wasn't aware of the song. Was "août" still sometimes – or usually – pronounced as two syllables, then, when the song was written, or was the two-syllable pronunciation revived for the purposes of metre? The fact that the "t" is not pronounced in the song is interesting as well, as it shows the "t"-dropping is far from new.

  35. LDavidH said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:41 am

    Throwing in a firebrand: as we're looking at sound and language changes, where do you think English will be going? Will BrE and AmE soon be recognised and treated as two separate languages, or will some kind of global English win out eventually – and what would _that_ sound like? And what if Scotland goes independent in a few years' time?

    Love to hear what people think about this (even if it's a bit OTT)!

  36. Lazar said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:04 am

    @LDavidH: I greatly doubt that AmEng and BrEng will ever become separate languages, at least not for a long time. The differences between the two standard varieties are quite minimal compared to those between Iberian and Brazilian Portuguese, or even compared to the variation found within the British Isles. I suppose the best prospect for some kind of mutual incomprehensibility would be if BrEng goes sufficiently far in the Estuary direction, with its chain-shifted vowels and l-vocalization, but I think the more conservative vowels of the Northern English and of the "Multicultural English" speakers in inner city London will keep this trend in check.

    On Scottish English, most of what I've read recently is about the decline of Scots and the growth of non-rhoticism among urbanites, and I doubt that independence-within-Europe is going to reverse a centuries-long trend of linguistic convergence. Hiberno-English has still largely maintained mutual comprehensibility, after all.

  37. chris y said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    Hiberno-English has still largely maintained mutual comprehensibility, after all.

    As an Englishman who finds most forms of Dublin English perfectly comprehensible, I'm not sure, on the basis of asking directions in Kilkenny, that this assertion can be confidently generalised to all Hiberno-English. The helpful gentleman we approached repeated his instructions three times until we got the gist of them, but I would have approach a more general conversation with him in some trepidation.

  38. Rod Johnson said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    When I first started learning French, in second grade, back in the sixties, I was taught the two-syllable [au] pronunciation. I have a feeling it was mainly to fit tthe prosody of some song, such as the one Marie-Lucie cites above–we did a lot of singing in those early classes. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned the [u] pronunciation.

  39. Luis Pedro Coelho said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    When Brazil became independent from Portugal, the two countries split the language: Brazil kept the vowels, the portuguese got the consonants.

  40. Luis Pedro Coelho said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Wrt to Portugal, I wonder how much is the fact that the most well-regarded accent is no longer that of Coimbra (whose ancient university used to educate the whole of the elite, but no longer), but Lisbon (which is sometimes called "Lesboa" [pronounced L'sboa] for the fact that its accent is heavy on elided vowels).

  41. Dw said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    @Luis Pedro Coelho:

    When Brazil became independent from Portugal, the two countries split the language: Brazil kept the vowels, the portuguese got the consonants.

    The opposite thing happened to English: The English kept the vowels: the Americans the consonants :)

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    Isn't that the same thing?

  43. Jean-Michel said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    English: "Mother country" keeps the vowels, ex-colony keeps the consonants
    Portuguese: Ex-colony keeps the vowels, "mother country" keeps the consonants

    At least I assume this is the contrast being drawn.

  44. Lauren said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

    @Avinor You could be onto something. I've heard speakers of European Portuguese (mostly from the Azores) say "Como é que está?" for How are you/How is he/she/it, pronouncing it something like [kom ɛk ʃta]. The "é que" doesn't seem necessary, since you could just say "Como está".

    Regarding the tendency for more reductions in European Portuguese, it makes sense because it's a stressed-timed language, whereas Brazilian Portuguese is a more syllable-timed language. But apparently French is also syllable-timed, so it's interesting that there is so much vowel reduction. I'm not a linguist, though.

  45. Thiago said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 11:27 pm

    You can stop the controversy about Brazillian and European Portuguese…

    My father, a perfectly fine Brazillian from Eastern Paraná, needs an interpret to communicate with perfectly fine Brazillians from Florianópolis… the languages practiced in Italian/Eastern European-influenced cities of Eastern Paraná and Açores Islands-influenced fishing villages of Western Santa Catarina are mutually unintelligible.

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