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Stepping off of the airplane in Lisbon, I could immediately hear that the pronunciation was much different from Brazilian Portuguese, which I am more accustomed to.

The level of vowel deletion was so pronounced in fact, that I almost thought people were speaking Polish, due to the high number of awkward consonant clusters - such as brzydka or ptaki in the Slavic language.

The four most striking and frequent examples I personally heard were:

  • pessoas as /ps'oɐʃ/
  • português as /prt'geʃ/
  • Lisboa as /lʒ'bo,ɐ/
  • desculpas as /dɯ̽ʃ'kuɫps/

Are there any general rules as to which of the vowels are more likely to be deleted?

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    I don't know Portuguese, but cross-linguistically unstressed vowels (particularly those that are already centralised) are more likely to get deleted (and your examples fit this pattern). Stressed vowels are often longer than unstressed vowels, and if this contrast is further exaggerated ultimately unstressed vowels will be omitted. – robert Sep 20 '13 at 23:41
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    I always said Euro Portuguese sounded like Russian but I hadn't been exposed to any Slavic languages at that point. I did have more or less functional Spanish which seemed to be no help whatsoever which surprised me. – hippietrail Sep 21 '13 at 4:43
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Based on my experience, the vowels most likely to be deleted are going to be the vowels in the first syllable of a consonant-initial word, unstressed syllables whose deletions result in pronounciations still "possible" in the phonetic system, vowels in the same syllable (especially e/i) with sibilants (which makes the sibilant syllabic), and word-final consonants (that are "heard" normally via an extra aspiration of the previous consonant).

So taking a word like interesante, you end up with the i fully realized, the first e omited because intre- is perfectly pronouncible, the a has stress and won't be omited, and the -e causes a heavy aspiration on the t.

Likewise, se will often be heard as simple a syllabic /s/.

Not the most detailed answer I can provide but Portuguese isn't as much my forte.

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