Cross-Discourse and Multilingual Exploration of Textual Corpora with the DualNeighbors Algorithm

by   Taylor Arnold, et al.
University of Richmond

Word choice is dependent on the cultural context of writers and their subjects. Different words are used to describe similar actions, objects, and features based on factors such as class, race, gender, geography and political affinity. Exploratory techniques based on locating and counting words may, therefore, lead to conclusions that reinforce culturally inflected boundaries. We offer a new method, the DualNeighbors algorithm, for linking thematically similar documents both within and across discursive and linguistic barriers to reveal cross-cultural connections. Qualitative and quantitative evaluations of this technique are shown as applied to two cultural datasets of interest to researchers across the humanities and social sciences. An open-source implementation of the DualNeighbors algorithm is provided to assist in its application.



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1 Introduction

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. License details:

Text analysis is aided by a wide range of tools and techniques for detecting and locating themes and subjects. Key words in context (KWiC), for example, is a method from corpus linguistics for extracting short snippets of text containing a predefined set of words (Luhn, 1960; Gries, 2009). Systems for full text queries have been implemented by institutions such as the Library of Congress, the Social Science Research Network, and the Internet Archive (Cheng, ). As demonstrated by the centrality of search engines to the internet, word-based search algorithms are powerful tools for locating relevant information within a large body of textual data.

Exploring a collection of materials by searching for words poses a potential issue. Language is known to be highly dependent on the cultural factors that shape both the writer and subject matter. As concisely described by Foucault (1969), “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.” Searching through a corpus by words and phrases reveals a particular discourse or sub-theme but can make it challenging to identify a broader picture. Collections with multilingual data pose an extreme form of this challenge, with the potential for important portions of a large corpus to go without notice when using traditional search techniques.

Table 1: Nearest neighbors of the English word “school” in a multilingual embedding space.

Our works build off of recent research in word embeddings to provide a novel exploratory recommender system that ensures recommendations can cut across discursive and linguistic boundaries. We define two similarity measurements on a corpus: one based on word usage and another based on multilingual word embeddings. For any document in the corpus, our DualNeighbors algorithm returns the nearest neighbors from each of these two similarity measurements. Iteratively following recommendations through the corpus provides a coherent way of understanding structures and patterns within the data.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows. In Section 2 we first give a brief overview of prior work in the field of word embeddings, recommender systems, and multilingual search. We then provide a concise motivation and algorithmic description of the DualNeighbors algorithm in Sections 3 and 4. Next, we qualitatively (Section 5) and quantitatively (Section 6) assess the algorithm as applied to (i) a large collection of captions from an iconic archive of American photography, and (ii) a collection of multilingual Twitter news feeds. Finally, we conclude with a brief description of the implementation of our algorithm.

2 Related Work

2.1 Word Embeddings

Given a lexicon of terms

, a word embedding is a function that maps each term into a -dimensional sequence of numbers (Mikolov et al., 2013b). The embedding implicitly describes relationships between words, with similar terms being projected into similar sequences of numbers (Goldberg and Levy, 2014)

. Word embeddings are typically derived by placing them as the first layer of a neural network and updating the embeddings by a supervised learning task

(Joulin et al., 2017). General purpose embeddings can be constructed by using a generic training task, such as predicting a word as a function of its neighbors, over a large corpus (Mikolov et al., 2013a). These embeddings can be distributed and used as an input to other text processing tasks. For example, the pre-trained fastText embeddings provide -dimensional word embeddings for languages (Grave et al., 2018).

While there is meaningful information in the distances between words in an embedding space, there is no particular significance attached to each of its dimensions. Recent work has drawn on this degree of freedom to show that two independently trained word embeddings can be aligned by rotating one embedding to match another. When two embeddings from different languages are aligned, by way of matching a small set of manual translations, it is possible to embed a multilingual lexicon into a common space

(Smith et al., 2017). Table 1 shows the nearest word neighbors to the English term ‘school’ in six different languages. The closest neighbor in each language is an approximate translation of the term; other neighbors include particular types of schools and different word forms of the base term.

2.2 Word Embedding Recommendations

The ability of word embeddings to capture semantic similarities make them an excellent choice for improving query and recommendation systems. The word movers distance of Kusner et al. (2015) uses embeddings to describe a new document similarity metric and Li et al. (2016) uses them to extend topic models to corpora containing very short texts. Works by Ozsoy (2016) and Manotumruksa et al. (2016) utilize word embeddings as additional features within a larger supervised learning task. Others have, rather than using pre-trained word embeddings, developed techniques for learning item embeddings directly from a training corpus (Barkan and Koenigstein, 2016; Vasile et al., 2016; Biswas et al., 2017).

Our approach most closely builds off of the query expansion techniques of Zamani and Croft (2016) and De Boom et al. (2016). In both papers, the words found in the source document are combined with other terms that are close within the embedding space. Similarity metrics are then derived using standard probabilistic and distance-based methods, respectively. Both methods are evaluated by comparing the recommendations to observed user behavior.

2.3 Multilingual Cultural Heritage Data

Indexing and linking multilingual cultural heritage data is an important and active area of research. Much of the prior work on this task has focused on the use of semantic enrichment and linked open data, specifically through named entity recognition (NER). Named entities are often written similarly across languages, making them relatively easy points of reference to link across multilingual datasets

(Pappu et al., 2017). De Wilde et al. (2017) recently developed MERCKX, a system for combining NER and DBpedia for the semantic enrichment of multilingual archive records, built off of a multilingual extension of DBpedia Spotlight (Daiber et al., 2013). To the best of our knowledge, multilingual word embeddings have not been previously adapted to the exploration of cultural heritage datasets.

3 Goal and Approach

Our goal is to define an algorithm that takes a starting document within a corpus of texts and recommends a small set of thematically or stylistically similar documents. One can apply this algorithm to a particular text of interest, select one of the recommendations, and then re-apply the algorithm to derive a new set of document suggestions. Following this process iteratively yields a method for exploring and understanding a textual corpus. Ideally, the collection of recommendations should be sufficiently diverse to avoid getting stuck in a particular subset of the corpus.

Our approach to producing document recommendations, the DualNeighbors algorithm, constructs two distinct similarity measurements over the corpus and returns a fixed number of closest neighbors from each similarity method. The first measurement uses a standard TF-IDF (term-frequency, inverse document frequency) matrix along with cosine similarity. We call the nearest neighbors from this set the

word neighbors; these assure that the recommendations include texts that are very similar and relevant to the starting document. In the second metric we replace terms in the search document by their closest other terms within a word embedding space. The transformed document is again compared to the rest of the corpus through TF-IDF and cosine similarity. The resulting embedded neighbors allow for an increased degree of diversity and connectivity within the set of recommendations. For example, using Table 1, the embedding neighbors for a document using the term “school” could include texts referencing a “university” or “kindergarten”.

The DualNeighbors algorithm features two crucial differences compared to other word-embedding based query expansion techniques. Splitting the search explicitly into two types of neighbors allows for a better balance between the connectivity and diversity of the recommended documents. Also, replacing the document with its closest word embeddings, rather than augmenting as other approaches have done, significantly improves the diversity of the recommended documents. Additionally, by varying the number of neighbors displayed by each method, users can manually adjust the balance between diversity and relevance in the results. The effect of these distinctive differences are evaluated in Table 3 and Section 6.

4 The DualNeighbors Algorithm

Here, we provide a precise algorithmic formulation of the DualNeighbors algorithm. We begin with a pre-determined lexicon of lemmatized word forms. For simplicity of notation we will assume that words are tagged with their language, so that the English word “fruit” and French word “fruit” are distinct. Next, we take a (possibly multilingual) -dimensional word embedding function, as in Section 2.1. For a fixed neighborhood size , we can define the neighborhood function as a function that maps each term in to a set of new terms in the lexicon by associating each word in with its closest (Euclidiean) neighbors. The DualNeighbors algorithm is then given by:

  1. [wide, labelwidth=!, labelindent=0pt]

  2. Inputs: A textual corpus , document index of interest , a lexicon , word neighbor function , and desired number word neighbors and embedded neighbors to return.

  3. First, apply tokenization, lemmatization, and part-of-speech tagging models to each element in the input corpus . Filter the word forms to those found in the set . Then write the corpus as

  4. For each document and element in the lexicon, compute the dimensional binary term frequency matrix and TF-IDF matrix according to

  5. Simlarly, compute the embedded corpus as


    Define the the embedded binary term frequency matrix and TF-IDF matrix as

  6. Compute the document similarity matrices and using cosine similarity, for , as


    where is the

    th row vector of the matrix

    and and are both set to zero.

  7. Output: The recommended documents associated with document are given by:


    where returns the indices of the largest values of .

In practice, we typically start with Step 2 of the algorithm to determine an appropriate lexicon and cache the similarity matrices and for the next query. In implementation and examples, the multilingual fastText word embeddings of (Grave et al., 2018) used. Details of the implementation of the algorithm are given in Section 7.

Figure 1: Example visualization of the DualNeighbors algorithm. Item 1 is the starting point, items 2-4 are the first three word neighbors, and 5-8 are the first four embedding neighbors.

5 Qualitative Evaluation

Caption Top-3 Word Neighbors Top-3 Embedding Neighbors
Grading and bunching carrots in the field. Yuma County, Arizona Bunching carrots in the field. Yuma County, Arizona Roadside display of pumpkins and turnips and other vegetables near Berlin, Connecticut
Bunching carrots. Imperial County, California Hartford, Connecticut… Mrs. Komorosky picking cucumbers
Bunching carrots, Edinburg, Texas Pumpkins and turnips near Berlin, Connecticut
Brownsville, TX. Charro Days fiesta. Children. Brownsville, Texas. Charro Days fiesta. Picnic lunch at May Day-Health Day festivities…
Visitor to Taos fiesta, New Mexico Spectators at childrens races, Labor Day celebration
Bingo at fiesta, Taos, New Mexico Detroit, Michigan. Child in toddler go-cart
Imperial Brands shareholders revolt over CEO’s pay rise Evening Standard urged to declare Osborne’s job with Uber shareholder Bruno Le Maire à Wall Street pour attirer les investisseurs …
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick should have gone years ago Pierre Bergé : Le Monde perd l’un de ses actionnaires
£37bn paid to shareholders should have been invested Le pacte d’actionnaires de STX France en question
Cannes 2017: Eva Green and Joaquin Phoenix on Five looks to know about from the SAG red carpet Festival de Cannes 2017: Bella Hadid, rouge écarlate sur le tapis
the red carpet Baftas 2017: the best of the red carpet fashion À New York, tapis rouge pour Kermit la grenouille
Emmys 2016 fashion: the best looks on the red carpet Sur tapis rouge
Table 2: Two FSA-OWI captions and two tweets from the Guardian versus Le Figaro corpora along with the top-3 word and embedding neighbors.

5.1 FSA-OWI Captions

Our first example applies the DualNeighbors algorithm to a corpus of captions attached to approximately ninety thousand photographs taken between 1935 and 1943 by the U.S. Federal Government through the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (Baldwin, 1968). The collection remains one of the most historically important archives of American photography (Trachtenberg, 1990). The majority of captions consist of a short sentence describing the scene captured by the photographer. Photographic captions mostly come from notes taken by individual photographers; the style and lexicon is substantially variable across the corpus.

An example of the connections this method gives are shown in Table 2. For example, the word neighbors of the caption about the farming of carrots consists of other captions related to carrots. The embedding neighbors link to captions describing other vegetables, including pumpkins, cucumbers and turnips. Because of the correlation between crop types and geography, the embedding neighbors allow the search to extend beyond the U.S. South into the Northeast. Similarly, the caption about fiestas (a Spanish term often used to describe events in Hispanic/Latino communities) becomes linked to similar festivals in other locations by way of its embedding neighbors. By also including a set of word neighbors, we additionally see other examples of events within various communities across the Southwestern U.S..

Figure 1 shows the images along with the captions for a particular starting document. In the first row, the word neighbors show depictions of two older African American midwives, one in rural Georgia by Jack Delano in 1941 and another by Marion Post Walcott in 1939. The second row contains captions and images of embedding neighbors. Among these are two Fritz Henle photographs of white nurses training to assist with an appendectomy, taken in New York City in 1943. These show the practice of medicine in the U.S. from two different perspectives. Using only straightforward TF-IDF methods, there would otherwise have been no obvious link between these two groups of images. The two sets were taken over a year apart by different photographers in different cities. None of the key terms in the two captions match each other. It would be difficult for a researcher looking at either photograph to stumble on the other photograph without sifting through tens of thousands of images. The embedding neighbors solves this problem by linking the two related but distinct terms used to describe the scenes. Both rows together reveal the wide scope of the FSA-OWI corpus and the broad mandate given to the photographers. The DualNeighbors algorithm, therefore, illuminates connections that would be hidden by previous word-based search and recommender systems.

5.2 News Twitter Reports

Our second corpus is taken from Twitter, consisting of tweets by news organizations in the year 2017 (Littman et al., 2017). We compare the center-left British daily newspaper The Guardian and the center-right daily French newspaper Le Figaro. Twenty thousand tweets were randomly selected from each newspaper, after removing retweets and anything whose content was empty after removing hashtags and links. We used a French parser and word embedding to work with the data from Le Figaro and an English parser and embedding to process The Guardian headlines (Straka et al., 2016).

FSA-OWI Twitter
u.c. dist u.c. dist
12 0 0.002 25.1% 9.8 27 17 57.6% 7.3 25 16

Q. Replacement

11 1 0.011 15.7% 8.4 26 77 0.028 11.1% 7.3 26 84
10 2 0.023 15.5% 8.1 25 124 0.046 11.0% 7.2 27 110
9 3 0.038 16.3% 7.9 24 158 0.056 12.2% 7.1 28 129
8 4 0.047 17.8% 7.8 23 189 0.070 14.6% 7.0 29 134
7 5 0.056 20.4% 7.8 22 217 0.077 17.0% 7.0 29 139
6 6 0.061 23.8% 7.8 20 238 0.085 20.6% 7.0 30 137

Q. Expansion

11 1 0.002 26.8% 9.2 26 50 0.028 21.0% 8.2 25 61
10 2 0.002 31.7% 9.3 25 53 0.024 31.7% 8.9 25 68
9 3 0.002 35.5% 9.6 24 56 0.020 42.5% 10.2 26 65
8 4 0.002 40.8% 9.8 22 59 0.010 54.2% 15.8 26 61
7 5 0.003 47.0% 10.8 21 62 0.013 59.9% 2.3 26 56
6 6 0.004 52.9% 10.4 20 64 0.014 60.3% 1.5 25 51
Table 3: Connectivity metrics for similarity graphs. All examples relate each item to twelve neighbors, with word neighbors and embedding neighbors. For comparison, we show the results using both query replacement (as described in the DualNeighbors algorithm) and with the query expansion method suggested in the papers discussed in Section 2.2. The metrics give the (undirected) spectral gap , the proportion of directed pairs of items that are unconnected across directed edges (u.c.), the average distance (dist) between connected pairs of items, the 90th percentile of the in-degree (), and the 10th percentile of the number of neighbors within three links ().

In Table 2 we see two examples of the word and embedding nearest neighbors. The first tweet shows how the English word “shareholders” is linked both to its closest direct translation (“actionnaires”) as well as the more generic “investisseur”. In the next example the embedding links the search term to its most direct translation. “Red carpet” becomes “tapis rouge”. Once translated, we see that the themes linked to by both newspapers are similar, illustrating the algorithm’s ability to traverse linguistic boundaries within a corpus. Joining headlines across these two newspapers, and by extension the longer articles linked to in each tweet, makes it possible to compare the coverage of similar events across national, linguistic, and ideological boundaries. The connections shown in these two examples were only found through the use of the implicit translations given by the multilingual word embeddings as implemented in the DualNeighbors algorithm.

6 Quantitative Evaluation

6.1 Connectivity

We can study the set of recommendations given by our algorithm as a network structure between documents in a corpus. This is useful because there are many established metrics measuring the degree of connectivity within a given network. We will use five metrics to understand the network structure induced by our algorithm: (i) the algebraic connectivity, a measurement of whether the network has any bottlenecks (Fiedler, 1973), (ii) the proportion of document pairs that can be reached using edges, (iii) the average minimum distance between connected pairs of documents, (iv) the distribution of in-degrees, the number of other documents linking into a given document (Even and Tarjan, 1975), and (v) the distribution of third-degree ego scores, the number of documents that can be reached by moving along three or fewer edges (Everett and Borgatti, 2005). The algebraic connectivity is defined over an undirected network; the other metrics take the direction of the edge into account.

Table 3 shows the five connectivity metrics for various choices of and . All of the examples use a total of recommendations for consistency. Generally, we see that adding more edges from the (query expansion) word embedding matrix produces a network with a larger algebraic connectivity, lower average distance between document pairs, and larger third-degree ego scores. The distribution of in-degrees becomes increasingly variable, however, as more edges get mapped to a small set of hubs (documents linked to from a very large number of other documents). These two effects combine so that the most connected network using both corpora have edges from word similarities and edges from the word embedding logic. Generally, including at least one word embedding edges makes the network significantly more connected. The hubness of the network slowly becomes an issue as the proportion of embedding edges grows relative to the total number of edges.

To illustrate the importance of using query replacement in the word embedding neighbor function, the table also compares our approach (query replacement) to that of query expansion. That is, what happens if we retain the original term in the embedding neighbor function , as used in Equation 3, rather than replacing it. Table 3 shows that the query replacement approach of the DualNeighbors algorithm provides a greater degree of connectivity across all five metrics and any number of embedding neighbors . Therefore, this modification serves as an important contribution and distinguishing feature of our approach.

6.2 Relevance

It is far more difficult to quantitatively assess how relevant the recommendations made by our algorithm are to the starting document. The degree to which an item is relevant is subjective. Also, our goal is to find links across the corpus that share thematic similarities but also cut across languages and discourses, so a perfect degree of similarity between recommendations is not necessarily ideal. In order to make a quantitative assessment of relevancy, we constructed a dataset of randomly collected links between documents from each of our two corpora. We hand-labelled whether or not the link appeared to be ‘valid’. This was done according to whether the links between any of the terms used to link the two texts together used the terms in the same word sense. For example, we flagged as an invalid connection a link between the word “scab” used to describe a skin disease and “scab” as a synonym for strikebreaker. While a link being ‘valid’ does not guarantee that there will be an interesting connection between two documents, it does give a relatively unambiguous way of measuring whether the links found are erroneous or potentially interesting.

FSA-OWI Twitter
Pos. TF-IDF Emb. TF-IDF Emb.
1-3 0.88% 2.66% 6.34% 9.52%
4-8 1.27% 2.54% 9.09% 10.32%
9-12 5.17% 3.16% 9.40% 13.55%
Table 4: Taking a random sample of 3000 links from each corpus, the proportion of links between terms that were hand-coded as ‘invalid’ organized by corpus, neighbor type, and the position of the link in the list of edges. See Section 6.2 for the methodology used to determine validity.

The results of our hand-tagged dataset are given in Table 4, with the proportion of invalid links grouped by corpus, edge type, and the position of the edge within the list of possible nearest neighbors. Overall, we see that the proportion of valid embedding neighbors is nearly as high as the word neighbors across both corpora and the number of selected neighbors. This is impressive because there are many more ways that the word embedding neighbors can lead to invalid results. The results of Table 4 illustrate, however, that the embedding neighbors tend to find valid links that use both the source and target words in the same word sense. This is strong evidence that the DualNeighbors algorithm increases the connectivity of the recommendations through meaningful cross-discursive and multilingual links across a corpus.

7 Implementation

To facilitate the usage of our method in the exploration of textual data, we provide an open-source implementation of the algorithm in the R package cdexplo.111The package can be downloaded and installed from The package takes raw text as an input and produces an interactive website that can be used locally on a user’s computer; it therefore requires only minimal knowledge of the R programming language. For example, if a corpus is stored as a CSV file with the text in the first column, we can run the following code to apply the algorithm with equal to and equal to : [fontsize=] library(cdexplo) data ¡- read.csv(”input.csv”) anno ¡- cde_annotate(data) link ¡- cde_dual_neigh(anno, nw = 10, ne = 2) cde_make_page(link, ”output_location”) The source language and presence of metadata, including possible image URLs, will be automatically determined from the input, but can also be manually specified. The image in Figure 1 is a screen-shot from the output of the package applied to the FSA-OWI caption corpus.

8 Conclusions

We have derived the DualNeighbors algorithm to assist in the exploration of textual datasets. Qualitative and quantitative analyses have illustrated how the algorithm cuts across linguistic boundaries and improves the connectivity of the recommendation algorithm without a significant decrease to the relevancy of the returned results.

Language is impacted by cultural factors surrounding the writer and their subject. Syntactic and lexical choices serve as strong signals of class, race, education, and gender. The ability to connect and transcend the boundaries constructed by language while exploring textural data offers a powerful new approach to the study of cultural datasets. Our open-source implementation assists in the application of the DualNeighbors approach to new corpora. Furthermore, the computed recommendations can be directly adapted as a recommendation algorithm for digital public projects, allowing the exploratory benefits afforded by our technique to be available to a wider audience.

One avenue for extending the DualNeighbors algorithm is to further refine the process of constructing a lexicon and corresponding word embedding. Most of the errors we detected in the experiment in Section 6.2 were the result of proper nouns and noun phrases that do not make sense when embedding each individual word. Recent work has shown that better pre-processing can alleviate some of these difficulties Trask et al. (2015). We also noticed, particularly over the jargon-heavy Twitter news corpus, that many key phrases were missing from our embedding mapping. Research on sub-word Bojanowski et al. (2017) and character level embeddings Santos and Zadrozny (2014); Zhang et al. (2015) could be used to address terms that are outside of the specified lexicon.


We thank an anonymous reviewer whose comments suggested an additional motivation for our work. These suggestions have been incorporated into the final version of the paper.


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