One of the big non-secrets of Japanese is that learning kanji isn't really something that ends after those 2,000-odd characters in the 常用漢字 (jōyō kanji) list. As a serious reader you will always bump into unfamiliar characters and new ways of using the familiar ones — and those kanji aren't waiting for us to master the jōyō list before they make their appearance. So starting this minute, I will be introducing you to the more important advanced kanji, one character at a time.
Our first advanced character will be 俄, a lovely kanji you'll also be able to see in Reajer book 10, which features the short story Library Reverie (図書館幻想) by Miyazawa Kenji (宮沢賢治). Like many other advanced kanji, this one covers a very specific meaning that is at the same time quite common in the language. This characteristic actually makes such characters more straightforward to learn than the so-called basic ones.
The character is composed of two components that you'll be familiar with: the person radical, 人 (in the reduced form of 亻), and the sound component 我, which is also a standalone character that means "self". The meaning of 俄 has nothing to do with either of these; the character means "sudden", "abrupt", "at once", etc.
You will nearly always see 俄 as part of the noun 俄か (にわか). The most common use of this noun is by turning it into the adverb 俄かに, which means "suddenly", "abruptly", but also has the additional nuance of "hastily", "prematurely", etc. 俄か can also function as a な-adjective associated with the same basic meanings.
Another very common word that uses this character — or at least its kun reading—is 俄雨 (にわかあめ), "a sudden shower". When you hear this in the weather forecast, get ready for surprise attacks by bucketloads of rain. On the other hand, the on-yomi, which is ガ, is only used in one useful word: 俄然 (がぜん), an adverb similar in meaning to 俄かに.
A sudden trip to Russia
But wait: there is also a completely different meaning associated with 俄, which you may be familiar with if you know some Chinese. This meaning was also in use in early modern Japanese, and you may come across it in older texts. Warning: don't keep reading unless you like kanji trivia!
Ready for it? That other meaning of 俄 is… Russia. How on earth did that even happen? In Chinese the full name of Russia is 俄罗斯 (Pinyin: Éluósī), and 俄 stands for the compound in words like 俄国 (Éguó, which also means Russia) and 俄语 (Éyǔ, the Russian language).
The strange thing here is that a character that is used to transliterate a country name is supposed to be pronounced similarly to the initial sound of that name — whereas the sound É, let aloneガ, has nothing to do with how "Russia" (or Россия) sound in the original or even in Chinese.
Technically, only the 罗斯 part is the actual transliteration of Russia, while 俄 is mysteriously attached to it for no apparent reason. So where did it come from? According to this in-depth discussion, the addition comes from a Mongolian pronunciation that was later adopted by China's ruling Qing dynasty (which was itself of non-Chinese origin, coming from the Manchu people who took over China). Apparently the Mongolians had no native words that began with an [r] sound, and altered the pronunciation of the word Russia by adding the initial [e] sound.
The Chinese compound 俄罗斯 also drifted further east to Japan and was used in early modern Japanese in the non-simplified form of 俄羅斯, which was pronounced オロス. But Japan later abandoned that transliteration in favor of the modern ロシア, which was at first transliterated using the compound 露西亜. The initial character 露 represents Russia in Japanese to this day, primarily in newspaper headlines and articles.
Well, now that we're back from our international tour of the entire Far East, you can safely ignore that specialized meaning and concentrate on 俄 as used in the actual modern language. Just don't forget it next time you're walking under dark clouds without your umbrella!
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