This is something that I first noticed a long time ago, but that I am occasionally reminded of when Georgians comment on the behaviors of others.
In my English club classes at the Academy, we would ask our students what they thought about certain things – especially certain customs that are maybe more common or acceptable in America than in Georgia. There was one woman who was more talkative than the rest, and she would always respond with “why not?” and follow up with “I think it is normal.”
For example, we would ask “is it okay for a woman to live by herself” and she would say, “why not? I think it is normal.” But it’s obviously not normal, in Georgia, for a woman to live alone. Generally speaking, women live with their families (mom, dad, grandmother, etc) until they get married, and then they move in with their husband – either in his family’s house, or a house that he has bought for the new family. It is incredibly uncommon for a woman, especially a young woman, to live alone, partially for cultural reasons and partially for economic reasons. I know exactly one Georgian woman who lives by herself, in a flat inherited from her mother.
So in the US, we say “normal” to refer to something that is common or usual or everyday: “I normally go to work on time.” We can also use “normal” for something that is functioning properly: “your blood pressure is normal.” We say it to reassure people who are going through a tough time: “don’t worry, it’s normal to feel the way you do.” But we wouldn’t use it to refer to a behavior that is acceptable but uncommon, or unacceptable but common. We wouldn’t say that smoking marijuana is “abnormal” even if we disapproved. We wouldn’t say that being turned on by blue people was “normal” even if we thought that it was perfectly acceptable and harmless to be attracted to Smurfs and Na’vi.
In Georgia, however, if children are misbehaving, they are referred to as “abnormal” even if they are misbehaving in a way that is actually totally normal for children. If you ask someone, on the other hand, whether it is okay for a person to dye their hair green, they’ll say (if they approve of such a thing) that it’s “normal.”
So of course, I wonder if this is something about the way Georgians were taught English, or if there’s actually some semantic component that ties “normality” in the sense of common or usual practices to “normality” in the sense of socially acceptable or appropriate practices. In other words, do Georgians actually value “normality,” in the sense of social conformity, in and of itself? Is being “normal” in the English sense of the word valued or judged as morally superior to being different or “abnormal” in the English sense?
I’m always hesitant to make these kinds of linguistic connections and maybe getting thrown in with the neo-Whorfian crowd (not that I’m a Chomskyite either – I prefer to simply withhold judgment on the whole issue of how language shapes and is shaped by cognition; call me a linguistic agnostic if you will) but I do wonder if the Georgian values of family and society over the individual can be said to reflect or be reflected in the fact that Georgians conflate normality with acceptability or appropriateness, or if it’s just a funny linguistic artifact left over from an odd translation somewhere back in the mists of time that got put into standard Georgian curricula for English teaching. I wonder how Georgians express the concept of social acceptability or appropriateness in other languages, like Russian, German, or Turkish.
Normal or abnormal? You decide: