Great hopes have often been placed in the phonograph, but except as an indirect accessory, the instrument has proved of no service at all to the student of Indian languages, invaluable though it may be for recording aboriginal music. The phonograph still reproduces sound with too great imperfection. When we hear a record in our own language we do not observe this fact, because we are listening for what we can recognize rather than for those parts of the diction which we fail to recognize. Just as we can understand a person who mutters or whispers or speaks with indistinct articulation, simply because we succeed in hearing the majority of the sounds which he utters, and our imagination and familiarity with the language enable us to supply the missing sounds, until we think we have actually heard the whole—so we do in listening to a speech record from the phonograph. We can follow the whole of a record made in our own language, even if it is mechanically only tolerable; but we can hardly write down correctly a single word of a record made in an entirely foreign language. This may seem strange, but can easily be verified by experiment.
The only value of the phonograph to the student of Indian languages is the indirect one of assisting him in the procuring of texts. The Indian informant has every opportunity to speak as naturally and rapidly as he wishes. When a body of such records has been obtained, they can be gone over sentence by sentence, and if need be, word for word, with an interpreter, who speaks as slowly as may be necessary for correct dictation. By this double method the most satisfactory texts can be obtained. Though the labor is increased, and the instrument serves only for the first step of the process, the final product is a perfect written text.
Many attempts have been made to describe briefly and generally the grammatical structure of Indian languages. It has been commonly said that the languages, as a class, are agglutinating, that they "glue" one element to another to form words. But just such pasting together of word elements into words occurs in many of the Aryan languages, in fact in forms of speech all over the world. It is hard to see why on account of some subsidiary difference the same process should be called "inflection" when it takes place in our own language, and "agglutination" when it occurs in Indian or other idioms. It is probably only a desire to set off ourselves from all other people that is at the bottom of the distinction between "inflecting" and "agglutinating" languages.
A different description of American languages is contained in the word "polysynthetic," meaning a high degree of combination. There