The c-cedilla (ç) – [o] cê-cedilha ou [o] cê cedilhado in Portuguese – is usually a tricky letter to get a grasp on early on, unless you’re a speaker of French, Catalan and Occitan which use it in much the same way as Portuguese (albeit with certain differences).
In any case, here are the rules governing ç in Portuguese:
#1: It’s a variant of the word c, meaning it’s not a letter in its own right.
That’s an important detail for two reasons:
- It makes you understand the rules regarding its usage better if you just think of it as a variant of c;
- When you’re trying to find a word in a dictionary, words with ç are ordered together with words with c.
#2: It’s used only before a, o, and u, to turn a hard /k/ sound into a soft /s/ sound.
Note: all of the following pronunciations are based on the standard EP spoken in Lisbon
Before a, o, and u (and consonants), the letter c is pronounced with a hard /k/ sound (the c in cat):
- [a] cama (bed): kˈɐ.mɐ
- [a] colina (hillside): ku.lˈi.nɐ
- [o] caldo (broth): kˈaɫ.du
- [o] porco (pig): pˈoɾ.ku
- ficar (to stay): fi.kˈaɾ
- encravar (to get something stuck/ to jam): ẽ.kɾɐ.vˈaɾ
Before e and i, it’s pronounced with a soft /s/ sound (the c in city):
- [a] cidade (city): si.dˈa.dɨ
- [a] cereja (cherry): sɨ.ɾˈɐ.ʒɐ
- [a] polícia (police): pu.lˈi.sjɐ
- inocente (innocent): i.nu.sˈẽ.tɨ
Since C already has a soft /s/ sound before e and i, Ç is only used before vowels that would give C a hard /k/ sound without the cedilla, i.e., the first group (a, o, u):
- [a] caça (hunt, hunting) / [o] caça (fighter plane): kˈa.sɐ
- compare with [a] caca (poo, dropping): kˈa.kɐ
- [o] braço (arm): IPA bɾˈa.su
- compare with fraco (weak): fɾˈa.ku; or [a] broca (drill, borer): bɾˈɔ.kɐ
P.S. Just in case you’re wondering, the digraph qu is used to fill the gap between the two sets, i.e., it’s used before e and i to achieve a hard /k/ sound.
- [o] queijo (cheese): kˈɐj.ʒu
- [a] quinta (farm): kˈĩ.tɐ
#3: It’s never used at the beginning or at the very end of a word.
This rule sets it apart from the three languages I mentioned earlier, who can have ç begin a word (FR ça, OCC çò) or end one (CAT / OCC braç, “arm”).
This also means that any word that starts with with a /s/ sound followed by an a, o, or u sound is to be spelled with an s instead (since c without the cedilla + those vowels = /k/, and ç at the beginning of a word – or ss, by the way – is not an option):
- [o] sábado (Saturday): sˈa.bɐ.du
- [o/a] soldado (soldier): soɫ.dˈa.du
- [a] subida (rise/climb): su.bˈi.dɐ
- [a] secção (section): sɛk.sˈɐ̃w
#4: Inside a word, it’s usually hard to tell whether a /s/ sound before a, o, and u is spelled ç or ss. You’ll just have to learn those by heart.
This may seem hard at first, but words from the same family follow the same rule, so it gets slightly easier with time. For example, the verb assar (to roast) gives us [o] assado (roast), [a] assadeira / [o] assador (roasting tray/pan); [o/a] assador/a (person who roasts things for a living, like chicken or chestnuts to sell).
On the other hand, from [o] braço (“arm”, see above), we get the words abraçar (to hug), [o] abraço (hug); [o] antebraço (forearm), [a] braçadeira (armband), [a] braçada (swimming arm stroke), etc.
Please make sure you make the appropriate ajustments when the relevant /s/ syllable of a word from a ç family ends up before e or i; for example, esbracejar/bracejar (to wave one’s arms about) have a plain c (where the others have ç) because an e follows, therefore rendering ç redundant (and grammatically wrong).