Power, Power, Power, and Power: Musings on Language, Categories, and Isomorphisms

You know, with all the different meanings of words, it’s a little wonder that people have trouble learning a different language. Or is this so?

For example, over the last few days, the word “power” has come up in a lot of different contexts. The first was yesterday afternoon, when the campus suffered a power outage. All the lights, all the air conditioning, all of it went kaput for the space of a few hours. The bank was nonfunctional, the classrooms were stuffy, the cash registers were crippled.

About an hour later, into the afternoon, I was talking about computers with someone. I described a program as powerful, and to make sure that they weren’t confused, I made it explicit that I meant the program let me do many things, but that it didn’t use more electricity than any other program.

Later on that afternoon, in a discussion of romantic love, it was conceded that love can be a powerful force in one’s life, in that it can affect one profoundly. This sense of power is more subtle, it doesn’t allow you to do things but instead it does things to you.

Finally, when planning a meeting to eat eel, we joked about “power”. Eel, in Korean cuisinary culture, is a virility food or what Koreans sometimes call a “stamina” food. Eel is said to provide a man with sexual power, as well as providing healthful benefits in combating heat and staving off illness. This form of power is more like the Chinese word “chi”.

It’s true that there are specific words for each of these senses of the English “power”, but when someone is struggling with a second language, teachers sometimes err on the side of generosity with the range of generality across which a term can be used. Electricity; elegant productivity; capacity for impact; and virility. However, when a student uses these words, the meaning is usually immediately clear to me.

If I had not studied another language, I should perhaps have thought that learning to speak this generalized, hybridized form of English, the intermediate English of many of my students, would be harder. After all, electricity and romantic pain have little to do with one another outside of a neurology textbook.

And yet, from my studies in Korean and French, I can say that these words, which I call “fat” words, actually ease the use of a foreign language in the early and intermediate stages. I call these words fat because they can signify many different meanings; many meanings are parceled into them. In Korean, for example, the word “him” (heem) can be used to convey several different meanings. It can mean energy, in that I can say I’m out of “him” when I finish swimming. It can convey emotional well-being, because one complains of a lack of “him” when one is depressed, or out of sorts. It can also mean “power” in the virility sense, or, in the debased form in which I use the Korean language with my friends, any kind of prowess at all.

What is interesting is that the isomorphisms – the sense that things that are different have the same underlying “shape”) often are contiguous between languages, but they are not identical. I don’t think I can use the word “him” very understandably to mean “electricity”, for there’s a completely different word for that in Korean and the word “him” doesn’t seem to even kind-of make sense for that (in the way power kind of makes sense in English when used to mean virility).

The way isomorphisms work seems to me to be tied directly to how we categorize and hierarchize mentally and linguistically. I haven’t read much about this in a while, and I regret not having read Douglas Hofstadter more when I had the chance. Perhaps I shall try to get a copy of Gödel/Escher/Bach when I can, sometime soon. But for now, I shall just have to muse at it in class, and during my own studies. Which I intend to take up again, now that I have spare time. Korean is hard, but it’s not too hard for me.

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