The Rule of Normal

Culture, Weekly news | | June 29, 2010 10:01

I  was in Artsakh for the last few days, where I came across the word “normal” on a few occasions.

“Would you like anything else to eat?”

“Che, normal a.” (“No, it’s normal.”)

“We aren’t getting late, are we?”

“Normal a, normal.” (“It’s normal, normal.”)

I began to wonder – what is “normal”?

Etymonline.com says that a norma is a carpenter’s square, a “rule” or “pattern”, and so something “normal” is “in conformity with” such a standard. (A carpenter’s square also explains how, in mathematical terminology, the normal to a line is a line at a right angle to it.)

For Armenians around here, however, I find the word is used in more than one sense. At least in Artsakh, but elsewhere too, I am sure, it seems to mean “okay”, “fine”. I expect that there is some Russian influence here of which I am not all that aware. What is also throwing me off is that, in English nowadays, the word “normal” is used in a very commonplace sense, and it isn’t applied to entire countries, for example.

I was chatting with a friend the other day. He was recounting his experience at an international summer school, and how he got to interact with students from all over the world. In the Balkans, he told me, each people has a pet antagonism with another people. The Bosniaks and the Croats don’t get along, he said, but, together, they despise the Serbs, and those of the Republika Srpska can’t stand the Serbs of Serbia in turn. Kosovar Albanians and Albanians of Albania, Macedonians and Greeks, and so on and so forth… “But all of them”, he said, “all of the people of the former Yugoslavia hate the Slovenians, because they are the only ones with a normal country”.

We had a good laugh over that one. But what is “a normal country”? Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic not to have engaged in any armed conflict. It is stable, relatively well-off and a full-fledged member of the European Union and NATO. I get the strong sense that “normal” for a state implies the rule of law and the prevalence of human rights. And, certainly, proper elections.

“Es yerkroum yerp enk normal untroutiunner antskatsnelou?”

“When will we ever hold normal elections in this country?”

One hears this a lot in reference to Armenia. It doesn’t take much to figure out that “normal elections” means one person, one vote, and the votes count, and the ones with the most votes win. No bribery, no ballot box stuffing, no artificial hindrances for campaigns. I expect that this is the carpenter’s square for such things.

But there is yet more to this word. I remember a few years ago there was a special delegation of intellectuals and cultural figures from Armenia and Azerbaijan who visited Yerevan, Artsakh and Baku. It was a pretty big deal, organised by the embassies of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow, no doubt with some Russian backing. One of the participants of this event mentioned in an interview that the proceedings were “normal”. There weren’t any untoward incidents, certainly, but what was “normal” about the whole thing? It was rather extraordinary, I would say. Again, there seems to be some nuance in the use of this word here which is absent in English.

Another time, I remember hearing a friend who has lived in the States ask someone where one could find clothes in Yerevan with “normal” prices. It is true that it is hard to find proper clothes in Armenia, clothes to which one would be accustomed in the West, say, and even then, prices can certainly be exorbitant around here. Plus, she was looking for something to wear to a wedding, so I guess it had to conform to some further norma. But what would make the price aspect of it “normal”?

These two examples imply that not only does something “normal” have to correspond to a given standard, but it also has to reflect a certain expectation. The participant of the Armenian-Azerbaijani get-together did not think much would come of it, I imagine (and, indeed, nothing much did), and my friend who was invited to a wedding would have wanted appropriate clothes with an affordable price tag, but affordable in the same way clothes are in America.

Looking back at my own words, I agree myself that “normal” prices are hard to find in Yerevan for “normal” clothes and that I expect for my own part that “normal elections” involve being free and fair. I have gotten used to the same things in the same way. As a certain standard is established, so does one expect that standard to be upheld, and so is that standard accordingly reflected in one’s desires.

There is still a difference, though, in desiring “normal elections” because that would be a good thing in itself, and in desiring the sort of clothing at the sort of price which one expects because one is accustomed to it. Armenians are certainly not accustomed to free and fair elections, after all!

So, there is the “normal” which attests to an expectation conforming to a standard – a given, let us say ideal carpenter’s square – and there is the “normal” which is a matter of custom.

But, come to find out, there is yet another kind of “normal”, which is admittedly not too far removed from the customary one. What better example than coffee from which to seek inspiration in our context? Coffee in Armenia can be served darruh – “bitter”, i.e., without sugar, or kaghtsr – “sweet”. But it can also be “normal”, which is the mean. Does this imply that a median amount of sugar in coffee is the ideal, that all ought to tend towards temperance in sweetness with regards to coffee as a good thing in itself, or that society has simply designated a little bit of sugar in coffee, but not too much, as “normal” by custom?

If differing normae are held by different people, they will not agree on the same phenomenon being “normal”. Or perhaps they can agree on something being “normal”, just not always desired, nor expected in all cases. But if different peoples use the same word with the same Latin root in different ways, then translating it as it is into English may not quite work all the time. Now there’s a standard I’d like to square.

Nareg Seferian

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