Vanishing lines

When it’s unclear where to draw a dividing line, it’s often better not to draw one at all. Such uncertainty is usually a sign that “the rules” for when to draw the dividing line will collapse when faced with too many cases, or when the rules are examined. For example, the concept of a word turns out to be so difficult to define lingiustically that the field doesn’t use it as a fundamental concept. Instead, linguists talk about building sentences from “units of meaning,” which might be roots, affixes, or processes like moving words around or changing sounds. Once fundamentality of the word is abandoned, it turns out to be something that varies greatly across different languages. Some languages, like Turkish and German, combine a great many units of meaning (suffixes in Turkish, massive noun compounds in German) into a single word, while other languages (English, Chinese) use lots of small words.

Almost two months ago, I found myself in China, Hong Kong and Macao over the course of three days. I traveled by plane, boat and bus. I used three separate currencies. My passport was scrutinized three times. Where my friend lived in China, the villagers spoke a language incomprehensible to the people in the nearest big city, where they in turn spoke another language incomprehensible to the Mandarin speakers who run the country from Beijing, or the Cantonese-speaking majority in the south and Hong Kong. Yet these people are all said to speak “Chinese” and all legally live under the authority of the Chinese government.

Two days ago I crossed from Hungary into Slovakia, then Austria, and finally Germany, by train, car and plane. I used three currencies and encountered three languages, but didn’t see a single border official, passport control or customs officer. At one train station in a small town, I wasn’t even sure what country I was in — not until checking the prices on a dusty vending machine did I know to pull out my Slovakian koruna (to buy my daily ice cream, of course)

It’s hard to see how these two snippets of my trip are really so different; each border I cross seems more like an abstract line on a map in a bureaucrat’s office somewhere than anything of much substance. A nation, like a word, is really just a locally convenient but globally poor abstraction, defined slightly differently in different places by different people.

In both places, the borders are evaporating. Hong Kong and Macao’s “Special Administrative Regions” will be abolished in 2047 and 2049, respectively, ostensibly once the different adminstrative and political processes there have been synchronized. And crossing three borders inside Europe so easily is made possible by the expanding European Union, bringing with it a somewhat easier sort of synchronization.

The concept of a nation seems to be slowly being abandoned in this globalizing world. It will clearly take decades, if not centuries, and won’t be without disagreement, but perhaps it too is an abstraction that truly needs to be thrown out.