Stressing Portuguese

Idea 4 April, text


Sometimes or often I hear Portuguese people (perhaps also Brazilians?) who speak English quite well nevertheless say the English name of their own language with the wrong stress: they say PORtuguese instead of portuGUESE. (As you see or might have guessed, I now use uppercase to indicate word stress. I’ll also use the official IPA stress marks later on, after first explaining them.)

Why is that? Perhaps because they noticed the stress difference in the name of the country? Portugal is PORtugal in English, but portuGAL in Portuguese (or actually more like prtGAL in the Portuguese of Portugal).

Do they apply the pattern heard in the country name also to the name of the language? Well, maybe, but it’s actually more complicated. Because sometimes the word Portuguese does actually have initial stress in English.

Perhaps it’s this simple: the English adjective is PORtuguese, and the noun, indicating the language, is portuGUESE. And I think the adjective also varies for reason of metre. I based that on my own language sense, trying some example phrases, but I could be wrong, because I’m not a native speaker of English either, being Dutch.


We’d better consult some online dictionaries then. British based Collins Dictionary starts with the adjective, and indicates double stress for it, here shown by underlining vowels: pɔːʳtʃʊgz. But the noun, two kinds, one plural and one uncountable, are also listed under that header, with the same pronunciation.

In the pronunciation sample – click the red loudspeaker symbol to hear it – however I clearly hear final stress, with at most a very weak secondary stress of the first syllable.

Then specifically for British English, now using IPA stress symbols, Collins gives ˌpɔːtjʊˈɡiːz, that is, primary stress on the last syllable, secondary stress on the first. Like what I hear in the sound sample.

The IPA stress symbol looks much like a straight single quote ('), although there is also a special symbol for it, which thanks to Unicode and the fonts of modern computers, now usually displays well: ˈ. The symbol for secondary stress has a lower position: ˌ. For comparison, the three together, between curly quotes, are: ‘'ˈˌ’. Or in a non-proportional, monospaced font: ‘'ˈˌ’.

Collins Dictionary also has a section on American English, which I’ll ignore, turning to Merriam-Webster instead. For its pronunciation indications, Merriam-Webster doesn’t use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), but a system of respelling, loosely based on the English orthography, which probably predates the IPA, and is kept alive as a tradition. In it, a letter e with a macron, ē, denotes what in IPA for other variants of English is usually written [iː] (phone) or /iː/ (phoneme), because most English words spelled with ee (examples: beetle, teenager), or a single ‘e’ in an open syllable (examples: compete, delete, Pete) have that sound.

Merriam-Webster gives both stresses (I ignore the variants ending in [s]): ˈpȯr-chə-ˌgēz; ˌpȯr-chə-ˈgēz, with the sound sample having (as I hear it) primary stress at the end and secondary stress at the beginning.

The rules

I think the dictionaries are not accurate enough, and it’s actually quite complicated, more complicated than I thought when I first planned to write this article. I’ll try to list the rules as I think they are. I’ll use examples rather than linguistic terms, which are often difficult to connect to the everyday reality.

Again, I’m not a native speaker so I may be wrong. But I don’t think so.

Noun, meaning the language

Final stress, example: ‘How do you say that in PortuGUESE?’ But a secondary initial stress can be quite strong in certain contexts, perhaps caused by metrical factors. ‘PORtuGUESE is a language spoken in Portugal and Brazil, and in quite a few other countries.’

Noun, meaning a person

Initial stress, example: ‘The victim, a 40 year old PORtuguese, was taken to hospital, and is doing reasonably well.’

Adjective, in predicative use

Final stress, example: ‘There are three cities called Bragança, two are BraZIlian and one is PortuGUESE.’

Adjective, in attributive use

Initial stress, example: ‘Do we say “SPANish and PORtuguese literature” or “PORtuguese and SPANish literature”? Either, I think. Both OK.’

Also: ‘The PORtuguese language is spoken in Portugal and Brazil, and in quite a few other countries.’

Possibly the cause here is that the following words have initial stress: LITerature, LANguage. Then if PortuGUESE were stressed finally, we’d have two stressed syllables in succession, which doesn’t go well with the nature of the English language. So what happens in an example where the corresponding nouns start with one or more unstressed syllables?

‘In a grammar book we can read about PORtuGUESE infinitives and PORtuGUESE participles, and also find PORtuGUESE conjugation tables.’ A double stress, I would say, the one on the last syllable perhaps being slightly stronger.

This is what I call the effect of metre, a notion normally applied to poetry, but which I think also plays a role in prose and in normal speech. It deals with how long and short, strong and weak, stressed and unstressed syllables find their proper place and role in a phrase.


‘Processor’ is also an interesting word. Each of its three syllables is stressed in at least one language: it is PROcessor in English, not to be confused with proFESsor. Then in Dutch it’s proCESsor, and the German word ProZESsor has that same stress pattern. But Portuguese, Spanish and Interlingua have procesSOR.