Reforms of Portuguese Orthography - Portuguese Orthography Vs. Brazilian Orthography - Problems With The Original Orthography

Problems With The Original Orthography

Notwithstanding its traces of etymology, the 1911 orthography aimed to be phonetic in the sense that, given the spelling of a word, there would be no ambiguity about its pronunciation. For that reason, it had certain characteristics which later produced inconsistencies between the European and the Brazilian orthographies.

In unstressed syllables, hiatuses were originally distinguished from diphthongs with a trema. For instance, writing saüdade, traïdor, constituïção, so that they would be pronounced sa-udade, tra-idor, constitu-ição. But the pronunciation of these words is not uniform. Many speakers say sau-dade and trai-dor, especially in fast speech. Furthermore, there are no minimal pairs that distinguish a hiatus from a falling diphthong in unstressed syllables. For this reason, marking unstressed hiatuses came to be seen as unnecessary, and these tremas were eventually abolished.

The trema was also used in the words where the letter u is, exceptionally, pronounced in the digraphs gue, gui, que, qui, rather than silent as usual; e.g. agüentar, sagüim, freqüente, eqüidade. However, there is regional variation, with for example the u being pronounced in a few Brazilian Portuguese accents qüestão (though it was never accepted as a possible writing), but not in European Portuguese questão. Although the number of words with such divergent pronunciations is small, they have been seen as an obstacle to the orthographic unification of the language.

Unstressed vowels are usually high, but there are exceptions, including a few pairs of homographs in European Portuguese which vary only in having either a low or a high vowel in an unstressed syllable. To distinguish these, the grave accent was at first placed on unstressed low vowels: cf. pregar "to nail", where the e is pronounced /ɨ/ in European Portuguese, with prègar "to preach", where è is pronounced /ɛ/, or molhada /u/ "wet" with mòlhada /ɔ/ "bundle". But in Brazilian Portuguese both words in each example are pronounced the same way, so the grave accent is not used: pregar /e/ "to nail/to preach", molhada /o/ "wet/bundle"; the intended meaning is inferred from context. The grave accent was eventually abolished, except in a small number of contractions.

In other cases, where an unstressed low vowel was the result of the elision of the consonants c or p before c, ç, p, the consonant was kept in the spelling, to denote the quality of the preceding vowel. For example, in the word intercepção, which is stressed on its last syllable, the letter p is not pronounced, but indicates that the second e is pronounced /ɛ/, as opposed to the second e in intercessão, which is pronounced /ɨ/. Other examples of words where a silent consonant was left to lower the previous vowel are objecção and factor. In Brazilian Portuguese, the vowels in question are pronounced just like any other unstressed vowels, and, since there is no phonetic ambiguity to undo, the words are simply spelled objeção, fator, and so on.

The orthography distinguished between stressed éi and stressed ei. In Brazilian Portuguese, these diphthongs are indeed different, but in most dialects of European Portuguese both are pronounced the same way, and éi appears only by convention in some oxytone plural nouns and adjectives. This led to divergent spellings such as idéia (Brazil) and ideia (Portugal).

The Brazilian spelling has a, ê or ô in several words where the European orthography has á, é or ó, due to different pronunciation. For example, cf. pensamos, gênero, tônico (Brazil) with pensámos, género, tónico (Portugal). This happens when the vowels are stressed before the nasal consonants m or n, followed by another vowel, in which case both types of vowel may occur in European Portuguese, but Brazilian Portuguese allows only high vowels.

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