Portuguese: origin of circumflex and acute on e and o

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Dymn

Senior Member
Hi all,

French, Italian and Catalan all use an acute accent (´) for mid-close /e o/ and a grave accent for mid-open /ɛ ɔ/. So why does Portuguese use an acute for mid-open vowels and a circumflex for mid-close vowels? What's the origin and history of these conventions?

Thank you
 
  • merquiades

    Senior Member
    English (USA Northeast)
    I noticed that too, and had a look around. No other language uses the accent marks like in Portuguese.
    The accents in Portuguese serve two functions, to show the tonic accent and then to show if the vowel is open or closed. French only shows the later, and Italian, in theory shows both on the final syllable only, but they tend not to be rigorous. The first Italian method I had in high school actually only used grave accents. Is the modern accent scheme in Catalan the workings of Pompeu Fabra? I've always wished Italian would adopt the Catalan rules of accentuation, but I suppose it poses a problem nowadays when vowels can be open in one region and closed in another.
    In French circumflex accents show vowels that became long when the following consonant was dropped. Later on, the vowels shortened again, so nowadays ê and è sound the same. Could the Portuguese ê, â, ô have originally been long too? Actually maybe they still are. My Portuguese pronunciation isn't the best.

    Regarding Portuguese. If I'm not mistaken the acute accent is much more frequent than the circumflex, and shows word stress in a similar manner to Spanish. My theory is it's just more convenient to use an acute accent when a couple words in every sentence need an accent mark. This was set up in the days when manuscripts were written by hand. It's quicker. Also showing stressed words is also more important in a language like Portuguese than vowel quality. All natives know the quality of the vowel anyway. The circumflex adds the extra function of closed vowel quality and could slowly have been added and marked when absolutely needed. Do very old Portuguese texts have circumflex accents?
    I wonder if â in a word like Alcântara is meant to be pronounced closed.
     

    Dymn

    Senior Member
    Could the Portuguese ê, â, ô have originally been long too?
    I very much doubt that.

    Is the modern accent scheme in Catalan the workings of Pompeu Fabra?
    Most probably, I think accents weren't used at all in Old Catalan and in the texts I've read from the 19th and early 20th century they generally used only acute accents like in Spanish.

    Regarding Portuguese. If I'm not mistaken the acute accent is much more frequent than the circumflex, and shows word stress in a similar manner to Spanish.
    Maybe. After all î and û should be used since those vowels are even more closed than ê/ô. I've found the government's official bulletin of 1911 when the modern orthography was published, and it says (page 2, middle column, bottom of the page):
    Como é já uso estabelecido, o acento agudo (´) é o sinal, por excelência, da sílaba predominante de todo o vocábulo que não seja átono, com excepção de e, o fechados, que serão, aceitando-se o costume que em português se foi lentamente fixando, assinalados com o acento circunflexo (^).
    Before that reform, Portuguese didn't make such an ample use of accents. In the second half of the bulletin, they are only used in stressed monosyllabic and oxytone words.

    I wonder if â in a word like Alcântara is meant to be pronounced closed.
    Yes, nasal a is a closed /ɐ̃/.
     

    fdb

    Senior Member
    French (France)
    Actually, Vietnamese uses ê and ô for mid-high vowels and e and o for mid-low vowels. Vietnamese orthography was invented by mainly Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. It is reasonable to think that this reflects Portuguese spelling and pronunciation at that time.
     

    bearded

    Senior Member
    but I suppose it poses a problem nowadays when vowels can be open in one region and closed in another.
    Well, actually they cannot. Besides regional/dialectal pronunciations, in Italy there is still a standard/default pronunciation (theatre, news, etc.).
    Cf. pésca (fishing), pèsca (peach). It wouldn't be a problem to show the difference, like in Catalan, but traditionally it is not shown.
     

    Terio

    Senior Member
    Français (Québec)
    In Portugal, they spell : António and in Brazil : Antônio, according to the pronounciation.
     
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