Lenition of Voiced Stops
In Iberia, the three voiced stops /b/, /d/, and /g/ undergo lenition when they appear between vowels, producing fricative allophones:
- [b] → [β] for example, alfabeto, sílaba, receber
- [d] → [ð] for example: academia, cada, estados
- [g] → [ɣ] for example: vogais, artigo, chegar
This happens in Catalan, Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese. It does not, however, appear to occur in Brazil.
The Wikipedia article on Portuguese Phonology explains:
- In northern and central Portugal, the voiced stops /b/, /d/, /ɡ/ are usually lenited to fricatives [β], [ð], and [ɣ] respectively, except at the beginning of words, or after nasal vowels; a similar process occurs in Spanish.
The Portuguese version of that article says essentially the same thing:
- No norte e centro de Portugal, as plosivas sonoras /b/, /d/ e /g/ podem sofrer lenição e se transformarem nas fricativas [β], [ð], e [ɣ] respectivamente, exceto no início de palavras, ou depois de vogais nasais.
Do we know why Brazil and Portugal differ in this way? There is no such split in Iberian dialects of Spanish versus its American dialects: lenition happens anywhere Spanish is spoken. Similarly, all versions of Catalan have it. But lenition of voiced stops does not happen everywhere Portuguese is spoken, only some places.
More than one possible explanation comes to mind, including:
- Lenition of voiced stops was a phonologic phenomenon common to all Iberian languages which disappeared in Brazil after colonization. In other words, Brazil lost the trait.
- It was not present in the original language and developed in Portugal only after Brazil was colonized — and Brazil did not follow the same path. In other words, Portugal gained the trait.
- The Brazilian colonists came mostly from the southern part of Portugal, not the central or northern parts, and because lenition was less common in the south it never took hold in Brazil.
Certainly other possibilities also exist. Do we know what actually happened here? When did it occur? Is this a transitional process that we are now in the midst of, or is it completed?
- Portugal, with voiced stops lenited (“made softer”) into fricatives. Because this is fado it is sung, but the third clip has spoken examples.
- Brazil, where they are not softened that way; they are still stops. The narrator is especially clear, although you notice it in the others as well.
- Both, showing the contrast in this regard between the Portuguese visitor’s speech where he quite clearly softens his stops into fricatives and his Brazilian hosts, who do not do that.
This question occurred to me when I read that a speaker of Iberian Portuguese hearing a Brazilian say ou bolo might mishear it as ou polo because the European was expecting the [b] sound to become a [β] in that position, and when it didn’t, the wrong word might be momentarily (mis)understood before the context clarified it.