In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker described language as a nearly miraculous tool for getting our thoughts out of our heads and into others'. That is, language is a tool for communication. Now, some linguists might argue that while language is used for communication, it is not primarily a mechanism of externalizing thoughts.
Either way, in his now out third volume on language change, and in class, Bill Labov has been telling us about how language doesn't even work that good for communication all of the time. Bill has a corpus of natural misunderstandings which was collected by people around Penn. Most of the data was collected in 1987, but we've started collecting more again. Bill has been passing out pads of paper with this printed on them:
Every time one of us experiences a linguistic misunderstanding, or observes one, we have to write it down. It's a kind of fun project, but this post is specifically about these pads.
It occurred to me that we could set up a google form, and have people submit misunderstandings online, automatically compiled into a spreadsheet. As I started setting up the form, I realized that no one was going to want to use it, because it wasn't that cool. To be cool enough for people to be engaged with the collection of data, I'd need to create an iPhone app.
Or, pass out pads of paper. Here's the weird thing. These misunderstanding pads are cool. Everyone I've mentioned them to wants one. And then, once they get them, they carry them around and collect a bunch of data. But they're completely analog! How could something so drastically old fashioned be cool and interesting? I guess that once something becomes so old fashioned, it can be just as novel as the newest, cutting edge thing. An online form is at median banality, but analog pads of paper, and smart phone apps are interesting outliers, albiet on opposite ends of the distribution.
You have to wonder if one day, there will be an expensive and fashionable phone marketed that can only place calls, kind of like Shaker furniture.