Cultural Linguistics is a sub-branch of linguistics with a multidisciplinary origin which explores the relationship between language, culture, and conceptualisation (Palmer 1996;Sharifian 2011). The study of the relationship between language and conceptualisation gathered momentum with the development of cognitive linguistics during the 1980s. Cultural Linguistics shares with Cognitive Linguistics the view that language is grounded in human conceptual faculties but places a stronger emphasis on the cultural construction of the conceptualisations that serve as the basis for particularly the semantic and pragmatic components of language.
Cultural Linguistics views culture as a cognitive system, a view shared by cognitive anthropologists. It also views language as closely linked to culture. This view has its roots in several traditions in linguistic anthropology, including Boasian linguistics, ethnosemantics, and ethnography of speaking (for an extended discussion see Palmer 1996). By drawing on several disciplines including complexity science and distributed cognition, Cultural Linguistics has extended its theoretical basis, in particular the development of the notion of cultural cognition (Sharifian 2011) in recent years. The analytical tools of Cultural Linguistics are conceptual structures such as “cultural schema” (or cultural model), “cultural category” (including “cultural prototype”), and “cultural metaphor”. I have referred to these collectively as cultural conceptualisations (Sharifian 2003, 2008, 2011).
Cultural schemas are conceptual structures (or pools of knowledge heterogeneously shared by the members of a cultural group) that are culturally constructed and that upon which we draw when we communicate. They enable us to interpret and communicate knowledge, which is often and inescapably culturally mediated, as well as cultural experiences. Often the use of one word evokes knowledge and experiences that have a cultural basis in members of a speech community, and this serves as the basis for a significant degree of assumed shared understanding and inference. However, cultural schemas are not equally shared by members of a cultural group, and are constantly negotiated and renegotiated by the members across time and space. Thus, it is not possible to predict someone’s behaviour or their understanding of a message based on knowledge of cultural schemas as people internalise cultural schemas differently as they grow up among a cultural group.
Also, it is to be noted that an individual’s repertoire of conceptualisations may consist of the ones that are associated with their L1, or those they have access to as a result of living in particular cultural environments, or those developed from interacting with speakers from other cultures. The view of cultural conceptualisations presented here is a reaction to the essentialist views of culture which tend to stereotype people based on their cultural norms. The discussion presented in this paper explores language in relation to cultural conceptualisations and acknowledges that neither the knowledge of language nor cultural conceptualisations are unified across a speech community.
Cultural categories are those cognitive categories that have a cultural basis. Categorisation is one of the basic human cognitive processes and plays an important role in our cognitive development from early childhood. The human mind classifies objects, events, and experiences into categories based on similarities and differences, and we tend to take these categories for granted as we grow up (e.g., Mark et al. 1999). Although categorisation in early life tends to be rather idiosyncratic, that is, anything round may be categorised as a ball by a child, culture and language soon take over and guide us in our categorisation processes. Not only culture, through language, determines what categories we have available at our disposal, it also presents us with certain prototypes for those categories. For example, not only do we learn that a certain kind of food is categorised as ‘snack’, but we also learn what are the prototypical foods that usually come to mind when we think of the word ‘snack’.
Cultural conceptual metaphors are conceptual metaphors that have a root in cultural systems such as ethnomedical traditions, religion, and the like. Conceptual metaphors are defined as cognitive structures that allow us to understand one conceptual domain in terms of another (e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In varieties of English such as American English and British English, expressions such as ‘saving time’ and ‘spending time’ reflect conceptualisations of time as a commodity. Recent research in Cultural Linguistics has revealed that many conceptual metaphors originate from certain cultural basis. For example, some conceptual metaphors that use the human body as the source domain, such as heart as the seat of emotion, reflected in expressions such as ‘my heart goes out to him’, appear to have their origin in ethno-medical and other cultural traditions (e.g., Sharifian et al. 2008; Yu 2009).
Many features of human languages instantiate cultural conceptualisations. Inherent within the system of every language are categories, schemas, conceptual metaphors, and propensities for certain perspectives that reflect the cultural cognitions of those who have spoken the language from its beginnings. In particular, cultural conceptualisations feed into the semantic and pragmatic levels of meaning, providing speakers with pools of meaning which are to some extent shared across the community of speakers. In the following section, I present examples of cultural conceptualisations from Chinese English (also known as China English) and Hong Kong English and then go on to explore the notion of metacultural competence. It is to be noted that an attempt to characterise cultural conceptualisations that are encoded in language should not be interpreted as describing people, or stereotyping members of a cultural group. Cultural conceptualisations go beyond the level of individual members, in the sense that their existence is at the collective level of a group. As mentioned earlier, an individual’s cognitive pool of conceptualisations depends on their factors such as life experiences. Globalisation, for example, and people’s increasing experience of interculturality are leading to more and more contact between individuals who have access to different systems of cultural conceptualisations. Human mobility and living cross-culturally have increasingly led to individuals who have internalised elements from various systems of cultural conceptualisations.
Some cultural conceptualisations in Chinese English and Hong Kong English
As discussed earlier, the global spread of English has also entailed some demographic changes in the use of the language. It is now widely adopted as a means of communication by communities of speakers that have traditionally been identified as non-native speakers of the language. As mentioned earlier, this has led to further diversification and glocalisation of the language and the development of more world Englishes (Kachru 1986). In this section, I provide examples of the glocalisation of English in Chinese English and Hong Kong English.
The words ‘relation’, ‘relationship’, ‘connection’, and ‘networking’ are often used in Chinese English and Hong Kong English to refer to the Chinese cultural schema of guanxi. Many scholars have noticed the absence of the exact equivalent of the concept of guanxi in English and have offered various descriptions and definitions for it (e.g., Luo 2007; Farh et al. 1998). The schema relates to the complex dynamics of a particular type of interpersonal relationship in China. Luo (2007, 2) explains guanxi as follows:
The Chinese word “guanxi” refers to the concept of drawing on connections in order to secure favors in personal relations. It forms an intricate, pervasive relational network which the Chinese cultivate energetically, subtly, and imaginatively. It contains mutual obligations, assurances, and understanding, and governs Chinese attitudes towards long-term social and business relations.
Guanxi lies at the heart of life for many Chinese people to the extent that Luo (2007, 2) maintains that Chinese people “have turned guanxi into a calculated science”. Luo (2007, 3) even refers to guanxiology, a cross-disciplinary field of research that explores the formation, process, and the outcome of guanxi. Guanxi underlies many other concepts in Chinese and is closely interwoven with many other cultural schemas, such as that the Chinese cultural schema of mianzi ‘face’ (see Lee et al. 2001). For example, Lee et al. (2001, 55) maintain that “the underlying motives for reciprocal behaviours in guanxi is face saving”. A thorough treatment of the cultural schema of guanxi falls beyond the scope of this paper, but this brief explication should suffice in giving an example of cultural schema in an emerging variety of English. Further research is needed to explore the instantiations of the cultural schema of guanxi and its relevant schemas in Chinese English.
An example of cultural category in Chinese English and Hong Kong English is the use of the expression ‘moon cake’, which refers to a sweet cake in the shape of the moon which is filled with ingredients such as sesame seeds, beans, and duck eggs. There are many variants of moon cake made with different ingredients, with regional variations in taste and recipe. This cake is usually served during the mid-autumn festival, which is celebrated on the 15th of the eight lunar month, when the moon is supposed to be bright and full. There are different views about this festival, but according to one, it is a traditional harvest festival associated with worshiping and watching the moon. Some ingredients of moon cake represent certain aspects of the festival. For example, the yolk used in the moon cake represents the full moon. Eating moon cakes during the festival was traditionally associated with offerings to the Moon Goddess, but in modern days “people eat moon cakes to express their homesickness and love for their family members, and their hope for a bumper harvest and a happy life, as the moon cake symbolizes family reunion” (online source)a. Moon cakes are nowadays offered as presents to colleagues, family members, and friends.
Another example of a cultural category from Chinese English and Hong Kong English is ‘lucky money’, which refers to paper money that is placed inside red envelopes and given as gifts, particularly to children, during social and family occasions, such as the New Yearb. The envelope is red, a colour symbolising luck in Chinese culture which is also associated with fire as one of the traditional Five Elements in Chinese culture. In this capacity, it is believed to repel evil. There are certain cultural elements surrounding the gift of red envelopes. For example, the amount of money in the envelope should be dividable by two, because odd digits are associated with funerals. Sometimes, the lucky money and the red envelope are used metaphorically to refer to a bribe, associated with the underlying conceptualisation of a bribe is a gift (Cummings and Wolf 2011).
Another metaphor from Hong Kong English is the use of the expression “golden rice bowl” to refer to a secure high-paying job. This metaphor is based on the conceptualisation of a job is a food container (Cummings and Wolf 2011). In Hong Kong, the common cultural food is rice, which is usually served in a bowl and thus the use of “golden rice bowl” reflects a cultural artefact. The examples presented here should suffice to shed light on the notion of ‘cultural conceptualisations’. Lastly in this section, I reiterate that cultural conceptualisations are not equally shared by members of a speech community, and thus not everyone in Hong Kong shares the conceptualisations discussed in this section equally. Against this backdrop, the paper now focuses on exploring the notion of ‘metacultural competence’.