In Portuguese there are two accepted reasons vowels in verbs alternate in height.

The vowel harmonizing rule states that where the theme vowel (a from -ar, e from -er, and i from -ir) is deleted from the conjugation and retains tonic stress, the root vowel is changed to match the height of the theme vowel..

  • For example, the verb levar has a root vowel e whose height is mid, and a theme vowel a whose height is low. Therefore, where the theme vowel is omitted from a conjugation, such as in the first person indicative (I lead) the e from levo widens from mid to low lɛvo.

  • The same is true with servir, the e (mid) narrows to i (narrow), so the first person indicative (I serve) is not *servo, but it is instead sirvo.

The second vowel alternation rule is a general lowering of theme vowels for mid height root vowels, where the first rule does not apply.

  • servir whose root vowel, e, is mid is lowered to ɛ which is open in many conjugations, especially where the thematic vowel is not changed, and retains the tonic stress. Thus - sɛrves, sɛrve, sɛrvem. And in muver the o theme vowel is lowered to ɔ: mɔves, mɔve, mɔvem.

Given that these two are the only accepted vowel alternation conventions in Portuguese, what is causing some speakers to alternate the a in cantar to a fronted æ or even e? This convention is especially prevalent in the first person form kænto.

I'll put a URL to a song here if anybody is interested in hearing it - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WGTENlPlt8#t=31.

  • 1
    As a native Portuguese speaker, I had never paid attention to this vowel harmonizing rule. Thanks for the question! Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 15:45
  • When I first saw your question, I figured you'd be talking about -a to -as where I hear some raising in European Portuguese. Do you notice the same raising with falar*/*falo? Or jantar*/*janto? Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 14:25
  • @guifa This is a really good question, I do notice the same rising in janto, I think people in Lisboa say something like /'jen tu/. Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 20:04
  • @CayetanoGonçalves if it happens with janto then but not falo, then it is likely being raised by the nasalizing n. What about keeping the nasal bowl vowel but a different consonant? cambio de cambiar or canso de cansar? What about a word with just a nasal consonant that doesn't nasalize the vowel? Like amo? Just to try to narrow things down Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 4:55
  • 1
    Note: 'Mover' is pronounced 'muver' and its singular first person 'movo' is pronounced 'movo'
    – sergiol
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 11:06

1 Answer 1


If I understand what you're saying, I would have thought the canto vowel change (at least how it's pronounced in the song you~ve linked) is because it comes before an 'n'. The 'an' sound in (at least São Paulista) Portuguese to me always seems to do this.

  • So, do you agree that the singer says something equivalent to /'ken tu/ or /'kæn tu/? Do you know of any other environments where /n/ can change the vowels? Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 20:02
  • 1
    @CayetanoGonçalves Yeas he does. It's very common. I'd suspect slight nasalisation (which is everywhere in Portuguese) of the n is what cause the shift. Another example is banho, where the stronger nasalisation is evident in the spelling. This happens with other vowels too, such as in suponho. To answer your other question, since the shift happens with nasalisation, one other example environment where you can find this is where the a is specifically nasalised with the accent marker, e.g., irmã.
    – Alex Close
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 11:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.