When you’re learning Portuguese, the substantial differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are one of the first things you notice.
These distinctions may affect whether you decide to study Brazilian Portuguese or European Portuguese. The differences span all aspects of language (including spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary), so mastering them is essential to achieving fluency in Portuguese.
I’ll cover these key differences in a clear and straightforward way to help you navigate both Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese as you study your favorite dialect.
Major differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese
1. Pronunciation is the name of the game.
Pronunciation differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese will without a doubt be the first thing you’ll notice when you start learning the langue.
Many foreigners who are approaching Portuguese for the first time swear that the European variety reminds them of Russian.
The comparison is not entirely absurd; though Portuguese and Russian share absolutely no common origins, the way the Portuguese pronounce letters makes them sound, unlike any other Romance language.
Vowels, in Portugal, are much shorter than in Brazil and frequently even dropped, both at the end of a word or following a strongly pronounced consonant.
Brazilians, in turn, tend to stress vowels and, as a result, speak way more slowly than their European counterparts. That’s also why foreigners tend to judge the Brazilian dialect as easier to understand from the beginning.
2. Spelling is closer these days, but still quite distinct.
Like British and American English, spelling can vary substantially between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese.
There have been several attempts to unify the spellings within the past century; the last agreement between the eight countries that have Portuguese as their official language was implemented around 10 years ago.
Yet the reform didn’t change the spellings that were considered to mirror a different pronunciation. I’ll list a few of them:
- amnesty = amnistia (PT); anistia (BR)
- baby = bebé (PT); bebê (BR)
- fact = facto (PT); fato (BR)
- reception = receção (PT); recepção (BR)
- subtle = subtil (PT); sutil (BR)
3. There are basic vocabulary differences.
People use the words below on a daily basis, yet Portuguese and Brazilians use totally different words to express the same ideas. What’s more, you’ll probably have a hard time making yourself understood in either country if you don’t use the correct word.
- bathroom = casa de banho (PT); banheiro (BR)
- bus = autocarro (PT); ônibus (BR)
- breakfast = pequeno almoço (PT); café da manhã (BR)
- butchery = talho (PT); açougue (BR)
- candy = rebuçado (PT); bala (BR)
- cell phone = telemóvel (PT); celular (BR)
- comics = banda desenhada (PT); história em quadrinhos (BR)
- cup = chávena (PT); xícara (BR)
- flush = autoclismo (PT); descarga (BR)
- fridge = frigorífico (PT); geladeira (BR)
- ice cream = gelado (PT); sorvete (BR)
- juice = sumo (PT); suco (BR)
- panties = cuecas (PT); calcinha (BR)
- pedestrian = peão (PT); pedestre (BR)
- stapler = agrafador (PT); grampeador (BR)
- train = comboio (PT); trem (BR)
4. You don’t address people the same way in Brazil and Portugal.
You may have learned in school that, up until the Elizabethan era, English used to have a “thou” pronoun form that was eventually replaced by “you” in all situations.
Yet in many languages, including Portuguese, the distinction between a formal and a colloquial pronoun of address persists.
Overall, você is the prevalent colloquial pronoun in Brazilian Portuguese. Tu is used in some parts of the South and with a nonstandard conjugation in Rio de Janeiro. In formal situations or to address a superior or an elderly, you’ll hear o senhor for men and a senhora for women.
In Portugal, the issue is a bit messier. Folks say tu with friends and family members. Você, instead, may be frowned upon, as it’s seen as demeaning in certain regions.
In a formal context, though o senhor/a senhora can be used, people will consistently omit the pronoun and address others by their names instead.
The examples below should make things a little clearer:
- English: “Do you want coffee, Mary?
- Informal PT: Queres café, Maria?
- Informal BR: Você quer café, Maria?
- Formal BR: A senhora quer café, Dona Maria?
- Formal PT: A Maria quer café?
5. False friends are all over the place.
Words like “football”, “chips”, and infamously “fag” mean totally different things in American and British English. Likewise, Portuguese is filled with words that may cause a big misunderstanding depending on where you use them.
You have many harmless ones: apelido, for example, means “nickname” in Brazil and “surname” in Portugal; a fato is a suit in Portugal and a fact in Brazil.
You should try to memorize the false friends that may cause you trouble. Bicha, for instance, is a disparaging term for a homosexual (though much like “queer” the word has been reclaimed by the community) in Brazil. In Portugal, it can mean either that or merely a line.
A rapariga in northeastern Brazil is a prostitute or a sleazy woman, but only a girl or a young lady in European Portuguese. Pica, in Portugal, can mean several things, including an injection, a ticket inspector, or even enthusiasm. In Brazil, in turn, it’s usually understood as a vulgar name for the male organ.
Finally, just to stick to a few examples, a puto is a boy in Portugal, whereas in Brazil it’s mainly used as an adjective to mean “pissed”. That said, the list goes on forever!
6. The position of object pronouns changes on each side of the Atlantic.
The position of object pronouns in Portuguese is an intricate issue that is governed by a strict set of rules. For instance: in the formal register, you shouldn’t say voltei porque amo-te (i.e. “I came back because I love you”); the correct usage would be voltei porque te amo instead.
You shouldn’t start a sentence with an object pronoun either; rather than te vi na rua (“I saw you on the street”), you should say vi-te na rua.
Yet in practice, things don’t really work as they should. In Brazil, pronouns are always placed before verbs, unless you’re writing a letter, an academic paper, or some other formal piece of communication.
In Portugal, the opposite is true. Pronouns will come after verbs even in situations where, in theory, they shouldn’t.
7. Regional differences are a lot wider in Brazil.
This shouldn’t come as a shock, given Brazil is an enormous country, home to 210 million people. Portugal is a much tinier nation; only approximately 10 million people live there. But it does have a handful of regional dialects.
Still, it’s quite astonishing how the South American nation has some 10 to 15 distinct regional dialects, while the US, for instance, is far more homogenous regarding dialect diversity.
Things often have two or three names depending on where you go in the country; “cassava” is aipim in the South, mandioca in central Brazil, and macaxeira in the North.
More importantly, pronunciation and intonation also vary considerably. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are about 270 miles apart and have vastly different accents.
Anyhow, regional diversity shouldn’t an obstacle when you’re studying Portuguese. In general, all varieties within the same country are 100% mutually intelligible.
8. Loanwords from English are typically frowned upon in Portugal.
As a rule of thumb, the Portuguese tend to have a more nationalistic attitude toward their language and protect it from foreign influences.
Proof of that is the fact that the government of Portugal maintains a list of pre-approved names that Portuguese citizens must choose from when naming their children. The most common female name there remains Maria, whereas in Brazil the top picks change every couple of years.
With vocabulary, the principle is similar. Brazilians will eagerly say “home office”, while the Portuguese have created the translation teletrabalho. Similarly, a call (as in a Zoom call) isn’t normally translated in Brazil. In Portugal, however, folks will say videochamada instead.
European Portuguese will more easily use Latin as a source of new words. The word “media”, for instance, which is itself Latin in origin, retained its spelling and became média in Portugal. In Brazil, it was turned into mídia to emulate the English pronunciation.
Ironically, Portuguese children these days are so addicted to watching Brazilian YouTubers that they’ve been importing tons of Brazilian words, to the point that parents are complaining their kids are now speaking “Brazilian”.
9. Gerunds are far more common in Brazilian Portuguese.
In this case, Brazilian Portuguese will seem more reasonable to English speakers. That’s because the phrase “I am doing” translates into Eu estou fazendo. In Portugal, however, you’d hear Eu estou a fazer, which literally means “I am to do” far more often.
Both sentences are meant to indicate continuity. While speakers in both countries would probably understand either, usage remains distinct in Brazil and Portugal.
In some instances, you can replace the verb estar (i.e. “to be”) with ir (“to go”), vir (“to come”), or andar (“to walk”) for nuances in meaning like the Portuguese equivalent of the present perfect continuous.
Check out a few examples of gerund usage in Portugal and Brazil:
- He’s running = Ele está correndo (BR) | Ele está a correr (PT)
- She was writing a letter = Ela estava escrevendo uma carta (BR) | Ela estava a escrever uma carta (PT)
- I’ve been reading a lot = Eu ando lendo muito (BR) | Eu ando a ler muito (PT)
10. Overall, the gap between spoken and written Portuguese is bigger in Brazil.
The first Portuguese grammar was published in Portugal in the 16th century. This early guide and subsequent ones served as a reference across the Portuguese Empire.
The only problem was Brazilians were for the most part illiterate; there wasn’t even a single university in colonial Brazil because Portugal wouldn’t allow any to be created.
That, coupled with the melting pot that Brazil was back in the day, resulted in the formation of a unique language that differed widely from the one spoken and written in Portugal.
To sum it all up, I’ll leave you with “Pronominais”, a famous poem by Oswald de Andrade:
Dê-me um cigarro
Diz a gramática
Do professor e do aluno
E do mulato sabido
Mas o bom negro e o bom branco
Da Nação Brasileira
Dizem todos os dias
Deixa disso camarada
Me dá um cigarro.
In order to learn Portuguese successfully, sticking to one dialect is crucial, and it’s why you need to have a good understanding of the essential differences between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese.
When you use textbooks or apps to learn Portuguese, you normally learn one specific variety and you’re often introduced to these distinctions along the way.
With other resources like movies and storybooks, boundaries are a lot fuzzier. So taking note of the differences beforehand is a fantastic strategy to grasp all the nuances and speak Portuguese better with each passing day.