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July 8, 2012 | Portuguese

Nasal Vowel Sounds

More on Portuguese pronunciation.

Today I crossed paths with a triathlon running through my neighborhood. I love when things like that pop up unexpectedly. 

Aquaphor New York City Triathlon, West 72nd Street

Aquaphor New York City Triathlon, West 72nd Street

People Cheering on the Runner-Swimmer-Bikers

People Cheering on the Runner-Swimmer-Bikers

I am continuing to do battle with Portuguese pronunciation. One of my books, Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar by John Whitlam, goes into quite a bit of detail about this stuff, but since I can’t ever remember the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is I think what he is using in his explanations, it is almost meaningless to me to read through pages of text on how to pronounce things.

This is not Mr. Whitlam’s fault, of course. I like when books are thorough like this, though unfortunately this one is thorough enough to be too heavy to tow around comfortably in a purse, especially since all the exercises are in a separate workbook that needs to be brought along, too.

Section 1.4 is entitled “Nasal Vowel Sounds.” It begins, “The nasal vowel sounds are very characteristic of Portuguese and differ from the oral vowel sounds in that, when you pronounce them, you allow air to pass through your nose as well as your mouth. To get the feel of nasal vowels, try saying ‘aah!’ as you would for the doctor and then, without stopping, push some of the air up through your nose. It should be something like ‘aang,’ but not quite the same.”

These Books Are Heavy! Fancy Paper!

These Books Are Heavy! Fancy Paper!

So, the thing is, I am not a big fan of nasal things. I am a little mystified about how nasalization would have come about originally when languages were developing. It just doesn’t seem like a great idea to me.

I find myself picturing one guy saying to another as Portuguese was first evolving: “Okay, that was pretty good, but try again, and this time put a lot more nose into it.”

Anyway, Whitlam explains that there are five nasal vowels in Portuguese. They can be indicated either by a tilde above the vowel (√£, for example), or there could just be an m or n following an untilded (not a real word, I don’t think) vowel. Whitlam writes, “It is important to note that, in such cases, m and n are not themselves pronounced as separate sounds.” They just make the vowel in front of them go nasal.

He offers as an example the word campo (field), in which the a is nasal while the m merely lurks in the shadows.

Another thing that I find not difficult, but just surprising: Portuguese is full of hyphens. They are used heavily in reflexives, for instance. Lavar-se is “to wash oneself.” That looks funny to me! More on reflexives when I am more advanced.

I love this: pluperfect (or past perfect) in Portuguese is mais-que-perfeito, meaning literally “more-than-perfect.” I guess that’s not very surprising, since according to the Google search I just did two seconds ago, the word “pluperfect” comes from Latin for “more than perfect”: plus quam perfectum.

But it’s still cool anyway.

I need to study Latin.

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