Brazil: One Country, Many Variants and a Linguistic Rivalry

Brazil is a massive country with more than 211 million people living across 3,287,956 square miles. In fact, Brazil is the fifth largest country by area across the world and the largest in South America. While the official language of this sprawling country is Portuguese, how the language is spoken varies greatly from region to region. The two most recognizable accents are the Rio de Janeiro accent and the São Paulo accent. 

While Rio and São Paulo are not very far from each other when it comes to distance, they do have quite the language divide. Both regions speak a different version of Brazilian Portuguese and their pronunciation differs greatly. Citizens of Rio tend to be called Cariocas, whereas citizens of São Paulo are usually called Paulistanos or Paulistanas.

These varieties stem from the European influences in Rio de Janeiro caused by colonialism. In São Paulo, more language influence came from the indigenous people and a variety of European languages. These differing influences have left a mark on Brazil that is still felt today, let’s take a look at some of these. 


Terminology can vary greatly throughout Brazil, even in popular songs. Take the “Happy Birthday” song for insance. In São Paulo they start singing “é pique, é pique…” whereas those in Rio de Janeiro will sing “é big, é big…” Even the names for party decorations vary widely between different areas of Brazil. The word “balloon” is another solid example of these differences. A balloon is called “bexiga” in São Paulo (which also means “bladder” across Brazil) and “balão” in Rio de Janeiro (like a soccer ball). 

The word for “traffic lights” also varies as “farol” (São Paulo) and “sinal” (Rio de Janeiro). Sometimes, the same Portuguese word can have different meanings. The word “bolacha” refers to any kind of cookie or biscuit in São Paulo, whereas in Rio de Janeiro, it only refers to cookies with filling. To learn more about this cookie issue, check out the video below.  


When it comes to accents, Brazil does not have a standard accent or even a preferable one. While some TV and radio broadcasters do try to speak with a more “neutral accent”, the version of a so-called neutral accent can sound different depending on where the content is being distributed. 

Whether paulista, carioca, or from other regions, most people in Brazil may be mocked at some point in their life by their accents, mostly in a friendly way, by those who live outside of those regions.

One key difference between the accents of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is how they pronounce a “s” sound before consonants. How they pronounce the “s” before consonants in Rio de Janeiro is the same as it is when speaking Standard European Portuguese. Another example worth examining is the “r” sound. in Rio “r” is pronounced similar to “h” in English, whereas “r” in São Paulo are rolled, closer to the “r” spoken in Spanish.

One Language With Key Differences

While these differences may seem small at first glance, they can present challenges during the translation process. It can help to work with a localization expert that is very familiar with the specific market in Brazil that you’re creating a product or content for.


Breaking It Down: Brazilian Portuguese vs European Portuguese

There are two widely recognized Portuguese variants: Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese. To non-Portuguese speakers, these differences may seem inconsequential, but they are extremely relevant. Especially when it comes to translating or localizing audiovisual content in a high quality way. Let’s examine how these two variants differ and why this matters. 


How pronouns are used in Brazil and Portugal differ. For example, while Brazilians rarely use “tu” for the second person—instead making use of “você”—in Portugal they utilize both “tu” and “você”. How they place their pronouns also comes into play, with those living in Portugal placing object pronouns after the verbs and Brazilians placing them before the verb. In some places in Brazil (mainly the South) it is common to use “tu” but conjugated as you would conjugate verbs for “você.

Conjugation of verbs

The conjugation verbs that go with the pronouns also have clear differences across these variants. Brazilians prefer the você conjugation, as it is the same for the third person he/she conjugation. Because of these differences, Brazilians visiting or living in Portugal can struggle with the differences between formal and informal search. Confusing “tu” with “você” when speaking European Portuguese can be an etiquette faux pas and may cause offense. 


There are also slight vocabulary differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese. The vocabulary for words like refrigerator, pedestrian, and ice cream, are different in these two variants. In Brazil, their European Portuguese counterparts would actually mean refrigerated warehouse, pawn, and cold. These vocabulary swaps can make switching between the two variants particularly difficult. How you answer the phone is different too. In Portugal, you would answer the phone with “está lá?”, which essentially translates to “are you there?”. In Brazil, you would instead say “alô” which is similar to saying “hello?”.


Brazilian and European Portuguese are pronounced differently as well. When speaking European Portuguese, you generally don’t pronounce the letter “e” if it falls between two consonants. And when it comes to Brazilian Portuguese, you pronounce words that have “di” or “ti” like you would “gi” and “chi” in English, among other differences. The general intonation varies as well, with Brazilian Portuguese having more open vowel sounds, which causes European Portuguese to sound more muffled in comparison.

Why These Differences Matter

Understanding the differences between these two Portuguese variants can make it easier for Portuguese speakers to adapt to new environments. It’s also deeply important to be aware of these differences if you plan to introduce content into an audience that speaks Portuguese, as you need to choose the proper variant when it’s time to translate the text, whether that be translating it from a different variant of Portuguese or a different language entirely. 

The majority of Portuguese speakers will be able to figure out what a text says no matter which variant is used, but you want to ensure you don’t offend local customs and that your text relates clearly to your audience. This is especially important if you’re dealing with official documents that can be rejected if they contain language errors. Identifying which variant you need to use and making sure you take the steps to translate and localize your text properly will make your translated text as effective as possible.