Exploring West African folk narrative texts using machine learning

Gossa Lô*, Victor de Boer, Chris J. van Aart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This paper examines how machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) can be used to identify, analyze, and generate West African folk tales. Two corpora of West African and Western European folk tales are compiled and used in three experiments on cross-cultural folk tale analysis. In the text generation experiment, two types of deep learning text generators are built and trained on the West African corpus. We show that although the texts range between semantic and syntactic coherence, each of them contains West African features. The second experiment further examines the distinction between the West African and Western European folk tales by comparing the performance of an LSTM (acc. 0.74) with a BoW classifier (acc. 0.93), indicating that the two corpora can be clearly distinguished in terms of vocabulary. An interactive t-SNE visualization of a hybrid classifier (acc. 0.85) highlights the culture-specific words for both. The third experiment describes an ML analysis of narrative structures. Classifiers trained on parts of folk tales according to the three-act structure are quite capable of distinguishing these parts (acc. 0.78). Common n-grams extracted from these parts not only underline cross-cultural distinctions in narrative structures, but also show the overlap between verbal and written West African narratives.

Original languageEnglish
Article number236
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalInformation (Switzerland)
Issue number5
Early online date26 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020


  • Deep learning
  • Folk tales
  • Storytelling
  • Text classification
  • Text generation
  • West Africa


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