The idea of a binary opposition between content and expression emerged in the first decades of the 20th century, following a periodic series of advances in comparative philology in first decades of the 20th century. In 1816, Franz Bopp published The Sanskrit Conjugation System, laying out a methodology modeled after logic and science and making unavoidable the discovery of Indo-European and the demand for comparative methodologies in philology.
Philologists gained exposure to Sanskrit with the double boon of not only gaining a language that was inordinately orderly and complicated, but also the conceptual break from the sibling relationships of Latin and Greek following the ‘discovery’ of the ancient link to India. This was followed in the next decade with Jacob Grimm’s founding work, German Grammar. Then in 1861, the German linguist August Schleicher published his Concise Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Language. This was the first attempt at producing a unified comparative philology of Indo-European languages. It also marked the first attempt at reconstructing Indo-European through a methodology of model building and modeling.
In 1978, in Berlin and at the age of twenty-one, Ferdinand de Saussure completed his own reconstructive modeling of Indo-European, Thesis on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European, where he developed a structuralist methodology more in line with scientific methodologies that allowed him to come up with the Laryngeal Theory and predict a class of extinct consonants that would only be affirmed after his death with the discovery and decipherment of Hittite. Towards the end of the century the platonic idealization of signification began to lose its seat as Charles Pierce first began to develop out of logic the ideas behind the yet unborn field of Semiotics and Structuralism.
In the last years of his life, between 1908 and 1911, Saussure lectured at The University of Geneva, where he broke from teaching solely on comparative philology and taught his famous Course in General Linguistics. His own notes and those of his students and colleagues were compiled and published in 1916. Centrally located within the general theory of linguistics that is formulated in these notes is the now-familiar idea that words are signs. These signs are composed of a binary pairing of signifier and signified, expression and content. Though it was likely less so at the time, this seems fairly self-evident. However, he made the important, if problematic, characterization of the relationship between signifier and signified as fundamentally arbitrary. What in the units of sound or text that comprise the word ‘horse’ is characterizable by any of the properties we ascribe to an actual horse? With the formulization of semiotics, this nascent methodology, at least attempting to bring scientific rigor to a field of secondary properties, began extending to any class of signs.
That Saussure was able to reconstruct what are effectively unobservables is remarkable and the methodology exhibited reminds one of contemporary work in Physics. A decade before Saussure developed his Laryngeal Theory, Dmitri Mendeleev’s Principles of Chemistry was published, in which he began formulating a methodology for the classification of elements according to their chemical properties. In 1869 he published his periodic table of elements. This was followed almost immediately by a nearly identical table developed Lothar Myers.
What was most impressive about Mendeleev’s periodic table as compared to that of Myers was that he was able to predict the a surprising degree of accuracy properties of germanium, gallium, and scandium before their discovery. The parallel to Saussure’s achievement is strong and takes us back to methodology. Saussure’s reconstruction of the vowel system was likewise periodic, broken up by categories according to variables such as aperture or the position of the tongue. The system of classification he produced provided him with evidence for a class of entities (in his case sounds) that were not directly observable.