Normal and Abnormal

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.

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Normal or abnormal? You decide:

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7 Responses to Normal and Abnormal

  1. Derek says:

    I’m about 99% sure that this is a false cognate from Russian that has crossed over into Georgian and is now getting mis-translated into English. In Russian, нормально literally translates as “normal”, but really means something more like “okay” “all right” or “fine” in exactly the way you’re describing, and it’s pronounced very similarly to English ( http://www.forvo.com/word/нормально/ )

    “How are you doing?”
    “Нормально”.

    So Georgians who speak good Russian and then learn English will tend to use “normal” in an idiomatically Russian way, and I think the word has probably crossed over into Georgian to an extent, so even Georgians who don’t speak much Russian may use it that way (like пока, давай, and всё).

    So this is a case of history, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Angela says:

      Yes, I’m with Derek and thespinningone — “normal” is a false cognate. Once you start English-to-English translating “normal” to “fine”, as it means in Russian (+probably Georgian), their use of the word makes a whole lot more sense. 🙂

  2. Mirenza says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about! All summer I heard my friend scold her little brother with a “bicho, normaluri xar??” even when he was doing perfectly normal 7-year-old boy things (homework tantrums, bringing a turtle in the house). So I wonder if this is a chicken-or-egg deal—did Georgians always define behavior in terms of “normalcy” (even in Georgian), or did this phrase only enter both Georgian and Georglish recently as an adopted cognate?

  3. Saying “normal” in English is just a calque, a direct translation from Georgian. Which, in its turn, I’m pretty sure, has come from Russian. In Russian we use “нормально, нормальный” in this sense all the time – it’s more like “okay”, “fine”, “acceptable”, “not raising any concerns”, etc.
    But I guess the fact that your students say “normal” too often isn’t their biggest problem – so if I were you, I wouldn’t really bother discussing that with them. :))

  4. ---> says:

    > Georgians conflate normality with acceptability or appropriateness,
    > or if it’s just a funny linguistic artifact

    IMHO, former. You already mentioned about kids behavior. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of times when mothers walking out their kids an a park/public place they shout at them: ‘ნორმალურად მოიქეცი! – behave (yourself) normally!’ – literally translation.

    In other word ‘normal’ has a meaning of socially acceptable behavior. Your truly during teen years have being told/asked more then once by parents and teachers: ‘why you can’t be a normal person – like everybody else’?

    So ‘ნორმალური’ in Georgian and ‘normal’ in English have different meaning. IMHO again.

  5. pasumonok says:

    normal is not just an English word, it has nothing to do with how we are tought English. it is present in our everyday conversations.
    this is how i use normal:
    aranormaluri (abnormal) person=crazy person, behaving in unacceptable way. thus, what one of the commmentors said is “normal 7-year-old thing”, was considered as crazy behavior for his family. hence, aranormaluri xar=you are crazy. eg veraa, eg aranormaluria=he/she is psycho, he/she is crazy!
    often, i use normal as adequate. for example: she has a normal salary. he was looking very normal for the interview.
    i think the woman that told u it is normal for a woman to live alone, meant it is o.k. for a woman to live alone, it is not a big deal. so she actually believes something different.
    sometimes, i use normal in russian conotation–usually if asked on how i am doing, i say i am doing normally. :-)meaning fine.
    i just realized i have no idea how i use it in english.

  6. pasumonok says:

    so she actually believes something different.–i mean she believes in different behavior than what is common or accepted.

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