Case-related vowel alternation in nouns

Vowels in many noun stems alternate depending on whether the syllable in which they occur is open or closed. An open syllable is one where there is no consonant after the vowel; a closed syllable is one where the syllable is ‘closed’ by a consonant. For example, «стіл» (nominative singular) is a closed syllable, as there is a consonant – «л» – after the vowel «і». However, once an ending is added, as, for example, «стола» (genitive singular), the stem becomes an open syllable – «сто-ла», and «і» changes to «о».

The principal alternations within nouns are «і» with «о» or «е». The rules, however, are not as clear-cut as they might be. In addition to the principal rules, as George Shevelov (The Slavonic Languages, London 1993) remarks, “there are many isolated instances of the alternation, so that there cannot be any absolute predictability in the choice between [vowels]”. Probably the best strategy is to learn the genitive case of a noun at the same time as the nominative, and, when in doubt, to consult an orthographic dictionary. Given below are the main occurrences of alternations and vowel changes, with examples (however, the account is by no means exhaustive).

1. Alternation of «і» and «о»

1.1 Masculine nouns («і» in nominative singular only)

Many masculine nouns with «і» before the final consonant in nominative singular undergo alternation with «о» in all other cases. Given below are examples of frequently-used words (with a range of word-final consonants):

острів – острова
поріг – порога
рід – роду
ніж – ножа
віз – воза
рік – року
стіл – стола (столу)
біль – болю (pain)
грім – грому
гомін – гомону
кінь - коня
вечір – вечора
ніс – носа
кіт – кота
гріш - гроша


1.2 1st declension Feminine nouns («і» in genitive plural only)

In the genitive plural, 1st declension feminine nouns (with a few exceptions), have a “zero ending”, that is, the genitive plural form is the same as the noun stem. So a noun with «о» in its stem in the nominative singular (and all other cases), for example, «школа» (where шко- is an open syllable), drops the ending «а», the stem becomes a closed syllable and «о» changes to «і» - «шкіл». This rule applies to most nouns like this, but not all. Given below are some frequently-used examples, in nominative singular and genitive plural:

доба – діб
особа – осіб
голова - голів
нога – ніг
дорога – доріг
ягода – ягід
коза – кіз
сльоза – сліз
щока – щік
бджола – бджіл
пола – піл
стопа – стіп (стоп)
гора – гір
пора – пір
коса – кіс
робота – робіт
блоха –бліх


1.3 Non-1st declension feminine nouns («і» in nominative, accusative and instrumental singular)

This alternation applies to a number of important non-1st declension nouns, in which «і» is retained in nominative, accusative and instrumental singular, but alternates with «о» in all other cases including:

сіль – солі
ніч – ночі
неміч – немочі (and other compunds of -міч)
(не)хіть – (не)хоті
міць – моці.


This alternation also applies to over 4,000 feminine nouns ending in «-ість», in which «і» is retained in nominative, accusative and intrumental singular, but alternates with «о» in all other cases, for example:

творчість – творчості
більшість – більшості
мудрість – мудрості
єдність – єдності.


1.4 1st declension neuter nouns («і» in genitive plural only)

слово – слів (and compounds)
коло – кіл
чоло – чіл
болото – боліт.


2. Alternation of «і» and «е»

2.1 Masculine nouns

Some masculine nouns with «і» before the final consonant in nominative singular undergo alternation with «е», including:

папір – паперу
літ – лету (льоту)
лебідь – лебедя
медвідь – медведя
камінь – каменя (каменю)
платіж – платежу.


2.2 Feminine nouns

Some non-1st declension feminine nouns also undergo the «і» – «е» alternation, including:

осінь – осені
піч – печі
постіль – постелі
матір – матері (and compounds).

2.3 Neuter nouns

Neuter nouns subject to the «і» – «е» alternation include:

село – сіл
колесо – коліс.

3. Alternation of iotated vowels «ї» and «є»/«йо»

If the stem of a noun ends in «-й», the vowel alternation (assuming this applies) will reflect the iotation, and the alternating vowels will be «ї» with «є»/«йо». The pattern follows that for the «і» – «о»/«е» alternation, but applies to relatively few words, examples of which are given below.

Masculine nouns (usually place names) ending in «їв» have their origins as possessive adjectives, for example, Київ is, strictly speaking, a contracted version of Київ город (the city of Kyi, one of the brothers who founded the city). However, they behave as nouns, with «ї» alternating with «є»: Кий – Київ – Києва (Миколаїв is another example).

In a small number of feminine nouns ending in -їсть the «ї» alternates with «йо», for example, безкраїсть – безкрайості (from the stem «-край-»).

4. Epenthetic vowels

Epenthetic vowels, also referred to as ‘fleeting’ or ‘fugitive’ vowels (and, by one despairing student of Ukrainian, as ‘disappearing’ vowels!), are inserted into consonant clusters at the ends of stems to separate the consonants (and, consequently, to make them easier to pronounce). These vowels are «о» and «е». They are usually present when there is a “zero ending”, with the form of the noun being the same as the stem, in the nominative singular of masculine nouns and the genitive plural of feminine and neuter nouns. Examples of each type of insertion are given below.

4.1 Masculine nouns in nominative singular only

будинок – будинку, турок – турка, чайок – чайку (and many other nouns ending in «-ок», including diminutives)

хлопець – хлопця, кінець – кінця (and many other nouns ending in «-ець»)

англієць – англійця (and other nouns ending in «-єць», frequently denoting origin or nationality)

день – дня, кашель – кашлю (and other nouns ending in «-ень», «-ель», etc.)

вітер – вітру (most other words in «-ер» are loans, and the «е» is not epenthetic).


4.2 Feminine nouns in genitive plural only

студентка – студенток, англійка – англійок, ложка – ложок (and many other nouns ending in «–ка»; also a few other nouns with consonant clusters followed by «а»)

сестра – сестер

спальня – спалень, лікарня – лікарень, пісня – пісень (and some other nouns with consonant clusters followed by «я»)

війна – воєн (війн); because the stem ends in «й», the epenthetic «е» changes to «є».


4.3 Neuter nouns in genitive plural only

вікно – вікон
люстро - люстер
яєчко – яєчок, совенятко – совеняток (and other diminutives in «-ко)
крісло – крісел
число – чисел
зерно – зерен
полотно – полотен.


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