Conceptual Vocabularies and Changing Meanings of “Foreign” in Dutch Foreign News (1815-1914)

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Ruben Ros

    Utrecht University

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The nineteenth century saw a ‘transformation of the world’ in the form of increasing communication, technological advancements and international political action (Osterhammel, 2014). One of the prime vehicles through which nineteenth century publics registered these changes was foreign news (Koopmans, 2005; Broersma 2007; Pettegree 2014; Rantanen 2007). Newspaper articles not only described, but also defined what was considered global, international and foreign. This poster shows how the concept of the foreign (expressed in the Dutch noun ‘buitenland’ and the adjective ‘buitenlands(ch)e’) changed over the course of the long nineteenth century. It does so by a computational analysis of foreign news in Dutch newspapers between 1815 and 1914.

From all newspapers present in Delpher (the digital portal of the Royal Dutch Library) this research uses a sample of twenty one newspapers, selected based on size, place of publication, religious-political affiliation and timespan (only newspapers with a timespan longer than ten years are used). The sample includes prominent newspapers such as Algemeen Handelsblad and the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant. The newspaper articles were downloaded through the Library API and subsequently tokenized and ngramized.

Newspapers are a suitable source for long-term conceptual history. However, as this research shows, the character of newspapers changes significantly over the course of the nineteenth century. Therefore, I pay particular attention to the changes in the nineteenth century newspaper landscape such as commercialization, politicization and technological advances in printing and reporting. With regard to foreign news, it is especially important to keep track of changes in newspaper layout, as this has a methodological as well as an historical effect.

This research aims to unite the flourishing body of literature on spatial history and the recent interest in spatial concepts (Blevins, 2014; Bavaj and Steber, 2015; Jordheim and Sandmo, 2019; Stråth, 2010). It does so by following three keywords (buitenland
buitenlander or buitenlands(ch)e) and their linguistic context through time. This is done by means of bigram frequency measures such as productivity and creativity. Also, I cluster the bigrams into semantically similar clusters using the popular word2vec method (Mikolov et al., 2013). In light of the limited number of newspapers in the period 1815-1830, the models are trained on ten-year periods of time. I also aligned the models diachronically (Kim et al., 2015).

Besides the study of these words and their context I also shed a light on the broader semantic fields in which the concept of the foreign resided. Concepts such as ‘binnenland’ (the domestic), ‘natie’ (nation) and ‘internationaal’ (international) were highly important in shaping the concept of buitenland, and shed a light on the socio-political context in which the concept operated. Conceptual interrelations are analyzed by measuring the overlap between bigram vocabularies, as well as by using the diachronically aligned vector space models. By interpreting concepts as lexical structures, cosine distances between words can be used to construct networks. Clusters in these networks, as well as the overall connectedness of the networks can then be used to measure conceptual relations (Recchia et al., 2016).

The third and last step in the analysis is the study of word associations. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the singularized buitenland was not only conceptually constructed, but also invested with particular meanings and associations. Based on historical and contemporary reflections on foreignness, I focus on four associations: scale, distance, stability, and temporality (Honig, 2000; Saunders, 2011). I analyze how the concept of ‘buitenland’ became associated with largeness, closeness/farness, instability and the future. Given that they are expressed as words or conditions of words I use diachronically aligned vector space models to detect words semantically related to the associations. The resulting vocabularies are then connected to n-gram frequency measures and collocations to diachronically analyze the form and quantity of these associations in connection to the concept of ‘buitenland’.

This research shows how during the nineteenth century the concept of ‘buitenland’ singularized. Foreign space was no longer spoken of in the plural, but in the singular. In the late nineteenth century mental geographies, ‘buitenland’ maintained a crucial place. Moreover, in the process of singularization several semantic properties became attached to the concept. The foreign was increasingly associated with largeness, instability and an uncertain future. The conceptual history of ‘buitenland’ hereby contributes to our understanding of today’s idea of globalization, an idea that is also permeated by associations of uncertainty and unstoppable change. Foreign news is thus not only a silent witness, but also an historically shaping factor of these developments.


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