The Identification of Spelling Variants in English and German Historical Texts: Manual or Automatic?

  1. 1. Dawn Archer

    University of Central Lancashire

  2. 2. Paul Rayson

    University of Lancaster

  3. 3. Andrea Ernst-Gerlach

    Universität Duisburg-Essen (University of Duisburg-Essen)

  4. 4. Sabastian Kempken

    Universität Duisburg-Essen (University of Duisburg-Essen)

  5. 5. Thomas Pilz

    Universität Duisburg-Essen (University of Duisburg-Essen)

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In this paper, we describe the approaches taken by two teams of researchers to the identification of spelling variants. Each team is working on a different language (English and German) but both are using historical texts from much the same time period (17th – 19th century).
The approaches differ in a number of other respects, for example we can draw a distinction between two types of context rules: in the German system, context rules
operate at the level of individual letters and represent constraints on candidate letter replacements or n-graphs; in the English system, contextual rules operate at the level of words and provide clues to detect real-word spelling variants i.e. ‘then’ used instead of ‘than’. However,
we noticed an overlap between the types of issues that we need to address for both English and German and also a similarity between the letter replacement patterns found in the two languages.
The aims of the research described in this paper are to compare manual and automatic techniques for the
development of letter replacement heuristics in German
and English, to determine the overlap between the
heuristics and depending on the extent of the overlap, to assess whether it is possible to develop a generic spelling detection tool for Indo-European languages (of which English and German are examples).
As a starting point, we have manually-built letter
replacement rules for English and German. We will compare these as a means of highlighting the similarity
between them. We will describe machine learning
approaches developed by the German team and apply them
to manually-derived ‘historical variant’-‘modern equivalent’
pairs (derived from existing corpora of English and
German) to determine whether we can derive similar
letter replacement heuristics. Using the manually-derived
heuristics as a gold-standard we will evaluate the
automatically derived rules.
Our prediction is that if the technique works in both
languages, it would suggest that we are able to develop generic letter-replacement heuristics for the identification
of historical variants for Indo-European languages.
2. German spelling variation
The interdisciplinary project “Rule based search in text databases with non-standard orthography” which is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [German Research Foundation] developed a rule-based fuzzy search-engine for historical texts (Pilz et al. 2005). Its aim of RSNSR is to provide means to perform reliable full text-search in documents written prior to the German unification of orthography in 1901.
On basis of around 4,000 manually collected one-to-one word mappings between non-standard and modern spellings, RSNSR follows three different paths to come
up with an efficient rule set. Those are manual rule
derivation, trained string edit distance and automatic rule learning. Additional mappings will be collected to
further enhance the quality of those approaches. The
manual derivation uses an alphabet of 62 different
sequences, in parts historical n-graphs (e.g. <a>, <äu>,
<eau>), built from combinations of the 30 standard
graphemes of the German language. Being built manually,
the alphabet considers linguistic restraints. Neither in context nor at the position of substitution non-lingual
n-graphs (i.e. grapheme sequences that directly correspond
to phonemes) are allowed. The context may also feature regular expressions using the java.util.regex formalism. The manually derived gold standard features the most elaborate rules. However the design of a rule set for the period from 1803 to 1806, based on only 338 evidences took about three days to create. Furthermore, the manual derivation is prone to human-error. This is especially true as soon as the rule set exceeds certain limits where side effects become more and more likely.
The algorithm used to calculate the edit costs was
proposed in 1975 by Bahl and Jelinek and taken up 1997 by
Ristad and Yianilos who extended the approach by
machine learning abilities. The authors applied the algorithm
to the problem of learning the pronunciation of words in conversational speech (Ristad and Yianilos 1997). In a comparison between 13 different edit distances, Ristad and Yianilos’ algorithm proofed to be the most efficient one. Its error rate on our list of evidences was 2.6 times lower than the standard Levenshtein distance measure and more than 6.7 times lower than Soundex (Kempken 2005).
The automatic generation of transformation rules uses
triplets containing the contemporary words, their
historic spelling variant and the collection frequency of the spelling variant. First, we compare the two words and determine so called ‘rule cores’. We determine the necessary transformations for each training example and also identify the corresponding context. In a second step, we generate rule candidates that also consider the
context information from the contemporary word. Finally,
in the third step we select the useful rules by pruning the candidate set with a proprietary extension of the PRISM algorithm (Cendrowska 1987).
For this paper, we compared the German gold standard,
mentioned above, with the two different machine
learning algorithms. The string learning algorithm produces
a fixed amount of single letter replacement probabilities. It is not yet possible to gather contextual information. Bi- or tri-graph operations are reflected by subsequent application of letter replacements. Therefore they do not map directly onto the manual rules. However, the four most frequent replacements, excluding identities,
correspond to the four most frequently used rules. For the period from 1800 to 1806 these are T→TH, Ä→AE, _→E and E→_.
The manual and the automatic derived rules show
obvious similarities, too. 12 of the 20 most frequently used
rules from the automatic approach are also included in the manually built rules. For six other rules equivalent rules in the manual rule set exist. The rule T→ET from the automatic approach, for example, corresponds to the more generalised form _→E taken from the manual
approach. And again do the first four rules match the four most frequent gold standard ones.
The automatic approaches, rule generation as well as edit distance, could be enhanced by a manual checking.
Nevertheless, even a semi-automatic algorithm allows us to save time and resources. It is furthermore obvious, that the machine learning is already able to provide with a
highly capable rule set for historical documents of German
3. English spelling variation
The existing English system called VARD
(VARiant Detector) has three components. First, a list of 45,805 variant forms and their modern
equivalents, built by hand. This provides a one-to-one mapping which VARD uses to insert a modern form alongside the historical variant which is preserved using an XML ‘reg’ tag. Secondly, a small set of contextual
rules which take the form of templates of words and part-of-speech tags. The templates are applied to find real-word variants such as ‘then’ instead of ‘than’, ‘doe’ instead of ‘do’, ‘bee’ for ‘be’ and detection of the genitive when an apostrophe is missing. The third component consists of manually crafted letter replacement heuristics designed during the collection of the one-to-one mapping
table and intended to reduce the manual overhead for
detection of unseen variants in new corpora.
The rationale behind the VARD tool is to detect and
normalise spelling variants to their modern equivalent in running text. This will enable techniques from corpus
linguistics to be applied more accurately (Rayson
et al., 2005). Techniques such as frequency profiling, concordancing, annotation and collocation extraction will not perform well with multiple variants of each word type in a corpus.
The English manual and automatically derived
rules show a great deal of similarity. Nine of the twenty
most frequent automatically derived rules are in the
manual set. Eight other automatically derived rules have
equivalents if we ignore context. Three automatically
derived rules do not have a match in the manual version.
4. Conclusion
The motivation behind the two approaches of VARD and RSNSR differs. This reflects on the overall structure of rules as well. While VARD is used to
automatically normalise variants and thus takes more
accurate aim to determine the correct modern equivalent,
RSNSR focuses on finding and highlighting those historical
spellings. Therefore its demands for precision are
diminished while recall is the much more important
factor. However, the approaches are highly capable of supporting each other and expanding their original field of application.
Cendrowska, J. (1987). PRISM: an algorithm for
inducing modular rules. Int. J Man-Machine Studies,
27(4), pp.349-370.
Kempken, S. (2005). Bewertung von historischen und
regionalen Schreibvarianten mit Hilfe von
Abstandsmaßen. Diploma thesis. Universität
Pilz, T., Luther, W., Ammon, U., Fuhr, N. (2005).
Rule-based search in text databases with nonstandard
orthography, Proceedings ACH/ALLC 2005, Victoria,
15 - 18 Jun 2005.
Rayson, P., Archer, D. and Smith, N. (2005) VARD versus Word: A comparison of the UCREL variant
detector and modern spell checkers on English
historical corpora. In proceedings of the Corpus Linguistics 2005 conference, July 14-17, Birmingham,
Ristad, E., Yianilos, P. (1997). Learning String Edit Distance, IEEE Trans. PAMI, 1997
Hessisches Staatsarchiv Darmstadt. (accessed 25 Nov. 2005)
Bibliotheca Augustana. FH Augsburg. http://www. (accessed 25 Nov. 2005)
(accessed 25 Nov. 2005)

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

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Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

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  • Language: English
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