Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 6: On Being Normal

When I look up the French word "normal" in my French-English dictionary, I find it gives the English word "normal" as a translation.  This is not entirely wrong; the words do, at first glance, have the same meaning -- or at least the same denotation -- but our normality is not at all "normale", as I have come to discover.

If I remember correctly from my English-speaking past, the word "normal" is quite often used perjoratively in English.  Fitting into the "norm" is something most people would deny they try to do. Would you go and see a "normal" film?  Would you want to spend time with "normal" people? At the very least, I think you will agree that the word expresses a certain lack of interest.  It is certainly not a compliment...  But things are rather different on the other side of the linguistic divide.

This is easier to understand in the case of the adverb:  if you are told something "normally" happens in a certain way, you will probably expect that to be the most frequent and likely course of events.  For example, if one of my colleagues told you that "normalement" the first university degree here took two years , you might assume -- if you didn't already suspect there was something fishy about the word -- that students habitually did the degree in two years.  Eh ben non, you're miles off!  "Normalement" means that things should happen that way, not that they do.  Officially -- "normalement" -- a first degree is done in two years; in practice things are quite different.  Similarly, if someone tells you that "normalement" the meeting is at 9.30, they are not reporting an observation of past events that could lead you to induce that the next meeting will most probably be at 9.30, they are informing you that the meeting is planned for 9.30, but also expressing a mild doubt that it will begin at that time, along with some residual optimism because the possibility is not yet excluded.

In fact, for the French "normal" is not the way things usually are, but the way they should be in an ideal world. Take the example of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  In English, if you described a school as "normal", it might be to contrast it with a technological school, a selective school or a school like Summerhill.  But the Ecole Normale Supérieure, affectionately known just as "Normale", is not at all "normal" in this sense of the word.  It is one of France's most highly selective and prestigious institutions, a system running parallel to the university that takes only top students, based on academic performance in the years leading up to the baccalauréat.  A student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) is a "normalien" and decades later, at the end of a successful academic career, he or she might put as one of his/her proudest titles, "former student of the ENS".  The "normaliens" dominate the French intellectual scene to such an extent that at a conference lunch recently, when I replied in the negative to the question "are you a normalienne?" the person who had asked me the question literally turned his back on me and began speaking to someone else with better academic credentials.

To help explain how the word "normal" can have such prestigious connotations, it helps to come back to the idea of a "norm" as being a model, principle or rule. In the best of all possible worlds, real life would conform to these ideals or norms, so that the meeting would start at 9.30 on the dot and all of humanity would be intellectually up to scratch.  Things would then be "normal" and everyone would correspond to the standards of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  In other words, whereas in English one might aspire to being of above-normal excellence, in French most people simply have to accept the fact that they are sub-normal, not quite on a par with the ideal of what they should be. To take the idea to its logical conclusion, one could even suppose that the "normaliens" themselves only come close to the "norm", and that (being mere contingent mortals, almost as lowly as you or I) they cannot, by definition, attain it completely.

This might seem like quibbling over words, but I honestly do believe that this little "false friend" is closely linked to something very important about the French, something it is difficult to express without sounding trite.  Bear with me: what I am referring to, with almost as much seriousness as I ever muster, is nothing less than tragedy itself. Hasn't it ever struck you -- those of you who have some acquaintance with the French -- that they are a tragic people?  The truth is that they are a nation of failures -- by their own definition -- and that many of them endure this sense of failure, like some mysterious invisible wound, all their lives.  They don't usually realise this, of course, because they think this state of emotional handicap is "normal" (in the English sense, this time), and so it is, since just about everyone around them suffers from it.  Occasionally, when one of us bounces in from outside and acts as if it were possible to succeed, they do wonder, briefly.  This helps to explain the existence of a new word in French slang: "winner" (pronounced "winn-eur").  A "winner" is something between a "yuppie" and a "go-getter", and by now you will not be surprised at the English (or American?) origin of the word.

Incidentally, just as the adjective "normal" is a high honour in French, so "spécial" is insulting. Don't go telling your French friend that he/she is really special... In everyday French this corresponds more or less to the English term "weird", without any of the more glamorous aspects weirdness can at times involve.  No doubt this is because someone who is "spécial" is even further from being "normal" than the rest of us poor mortals.

Jennifer Yee