First, lets identify the audience. If you enjoy writing fake ethnographic reports, the follow your joy. Ditto if you are writing a fictional novel and want a thoroughly developed setting. But, if you are writing a conlang and are wondering if you *need* to write a conculture, if you are sitting on the fence, then you are the audience for this article.
And who am I? I’m coming at this mostly as a conlang fan. I don’t write novels. If I ever finish writing my own conlang, it is with the intention of using and learning it. I don’t read fictional ethonographic reports for entertainment, although I enjoy reading about real history.
Second, lets gather some facts.
Amusing reference grammars of fake languages can be made more amusing by writing an amusing fake ethonographic report report. A fantasy novel can be made more amusing if the characters speak a real language reasonably defined in an appendix. These would be some of the facts in favor of writing a conculture.
Sometimes people try to actually write or speak these languages. All languages, real and fake, to some extent embody some culture–almost inescapably so. If you include honorifics, you’re saying something about culture just as much as if you exclude them, even if it is culture with a small c. People who are looking for a new language to learn, for what ever the goal, aren’t necessarily looking for a new lifestyle or world view.
Now, lets establish some contingencies. Either we as conlang designers want a community, or we don’t. Either decision is perfectly legitimate. A personal or cryptolang designer really doesn’t want a second speaker, so no decision need to take in consideration how the 2nd speaker will feel about it.
I’d like to make a distinction here between strong and weak concultures, between those that are truly fictonal and fake and those that are really just a reflection of real life. A strong conculture has an imaginary world, flora, fauna, social system, etc and this is all tied into the language. A weak conculture is just the culture inferences you can make about a language with grammaticalized honorifics, i.e. they probably have a stratified society. And all languages that people use become a way to express a real world culture, one that you could write an enthographic report about and get it into the non-fiction section of a library, next to the study of the Esperantists as a living culture.
A strong imaginary conculture will tie the success of the language to the conculture. Should Star Trek ever begin to feel as dated as an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Klingon, the language, will fade with it.
If you have written a perfectly good conlang, someone might want to learn and use it. Languages get used in the real and online world in the context of our own culture. So what could possibly go wrong with a conculture?
Fans could just ignore it.
I hope you enjoyed writing that enthnographic report. At least you have fans, but it was wasted effort, you language’s fans have completely ignored the six levels of honorifics based on how many times they have reincarnated. Fans in France appear to be using a two level pronoun driven system, fans in the US appear to be using a register based system (be wordy with strangers, concise with familiars) It’s unrealistic to expect fans to follow your conculture, they are generally happily trapped in their current culture.
Fans could bicker about it
Okay, so some of your fans do decide to play along and they fight with the fans who think the conculture is nonsense. You used to have just two problems- trolls and bickering about grammar. Now you have three.
Fans could reject it.
They like your language, but your politics are repugnant, so they reject your language and your conculture. It might be more accurate that you just don’t get fans in the first place. It takes 100s to 1000s of hours to learn to use a language reasonably well, potential fans will look at the conculture and have to decide if they compromise their self-identity just to dink around with a language.
Fans could live it
Just kidding. Fans aren’t delusional, they tend to be language geeks. They aren’t going to found communes based on your conculture.
Fans have to consider their friends and family
If I learn a language, I might like the language so much that I use it for everything I can– diary, socializing on forums & mailing lists, holiday spent at conventions. If my girlfriend isn’t into blue body paint and pretending to have a tail, then the Na’vi conculture isn’t going to help, it’s going to get in the way. Gimme a language that won’t make the girlfriend laugh. Give your fans a language that will still allow them to get a girlfriend (or boyfriend), lest they all go extinct.
A note on cultural neutrality
In auxlang design, the common advice is to create a language that favors no culture over another, or is somehow neutral. That may be a great design agenda, but that isn’t the only alternative to writing a conculture. A language that lacks a conculture doesn’t have to be a “neutral” culture.
A conlang that isn’t about a fictional world isn’t automatically an auxlang. If I ever write a conlang, I plan to only market it to other English speakers in the US. Not to slight anyone, but just because cultural neutrality requires compromises that can make a language ugly, but that is just my opinion.
The Default Choice
Write your conlang with a real culture, one that real people are living, as the backdrop.
Unless you really don’t want fans or really enjoy writing fake ethnographic reports. Then by all means, fire up that word processor and have fun.