Stemming, variations, and accent folding

Stemming, variations, and accent folding

Stemming, variations, and accent folding

The problem

The indexed text will often contain words in different form than the one the user searches for. For example, if the user searches for render, we would like the search to match not only documents that contain the render, but also renders, rendering, rendered, etc.

A related problem is one of accents. Names and loan words may contain accents in the original text but not in the user’s query, or vice versa. For example, we want the user to be able to search for cafe and find documents containing café.

The default analyzer for the whoosh.fields.TEXT field does not do stemming or accent folding.


Stemming is a heuristic process of removing suffixes (and sometimes prefixes) from words to arrive (hopefully, most of the time) at the base word. Whoosh includes several stemming algorithms such as Porter and Porter2, Paice Husk, and Lovins.

>>> from whoosh.lang.porter import stem
>>> stem("rendering")

The stemming filter applies the stemming function to the terms it indexes, and to words in user queries. So in theory all variations of a root word (“render”, “rendered”, “renders”, “rendering”, etc.) are reduced to a single term in the index, saving space. And all possible variations users might use in a query are reduced to the root, so stemming enhances “recall”.

The whoosh.analysis.StemFilter lets you add a stemming filter to an analyzer chain.

>>> rext = RegexTokenizer()
>>> stream = rext(u"fundamentally willows")
>>> stemmer = StemFilter()
>>> [token.text for token in stemmer(stream)]
[u"fundament", u"willow"]

The whoosh.analysis.StemmingAnalyzer() is a pre-packaged analyzer that combines a tokenizer, lower-case filter, optional stop filter, and stem filter:

from whoosh import fields
from whoosh.analysis import StemmingAnalyzer

stem_ana = StemmingAnalyzer()
schema = fields.Schema(title=TEXT(analyzer=stem_ana, stored=True),

Stemming has pros and cons.

  • It allows the user to find documents without worrying about word forms.
  • It reduces the size of the index, since it reduces the number of separate terms indexed by “collapsing” multiple word forms into a single base word.
  • It’s faster than using variations (see below)
  • The stemming algorithm can sometimes incorrectly conflate words or change the meaning of a word by removing suffixes.
  • The stemmed forms are often not proper words, so the terms in the field are not useful for things like creating a spelling dictionary.


Whereas stemming encodes the words in the index in a base form, when you use variations you instead index words “as is” and at query time expand words in the user query using a heuristic algorithm to generate morphological variations of the word.

>>> from whoosh.lang.morph_en import variations
>>> variations("rendered")
set(['rendered', 'rendernesses', 'render', 'renderless', 'rendering',
'renderness', 'renderes', 'renderer', 'renderements', 'rendereless',
'renderenesses', 'rendere', 'renderment', 'renderest', 'renderement',
'rendereful', 'renderers', 'renderful', 'renderings', 'renders', 'renderly',
'renderely', 'rendereness', 'renderments'])

Many of the generated variations for a given word will not be valid words, but it’s fairly fast for Whoosh to check which variations are actually in the index and only search for those.

The whoosh.query.Variations query object lets you search for variations of a word. Whereas the normal whoosh.query.Term object only searches for the given term, the Variations query acts like an Or query for the variations of the given word in the index. For example, the query:

query.Variations("content", "rendered")

…might act like this (depending on what words are in the index):

query.Or([query.Term("content", "render"), query.Term("content", "rendered"),
          query.Term("content", "renders"), query.Term("content", "rendering")])

To have the query parser use whoosh.query.Variations instead of whoosh.query.Term for individual terms, use the termclass keyword argument to the parser initialization method:

from whoosh import qparser, query

qp = qparser.QueryParser("content", termclass=query.Variations)

Variations has pros and cons.

  • It allows the user to find documents without worrying about word forms.
  • The terms in the field are actual words, not stems, so you can use the field’s contents for other purposes such as spell checking queries.
  • It increases the size of the index relative to stemming, because different word forms are indexed separately.
  • It acts like an Or search for all the variations, which is slower than searching for a single term.


Whereas stemming is a somewhat “brute force”, mechanical attempt at reducing words to their base form using simple rules, lemmatization usually refers to more sophisticated methods of finding the base form (“lemma”) of a word using language models, often involving analysis of the surrounding context and part-of-speech tagging.

Whoosh does not include any lemmatization functions, but if you have separate lemmatizing code you could write a custom whoosh.analysis.Filter to integrate it into a Whoosh analyzer.

Character folding

You can set up an analyzer to treat, for example, á, a, å, and â as equivalent to improve recall. This is often very useful, allowing the user to, for example, type cafe or resume and find documents containing café and resumé.

Character folding is especially useful for unicode characters that may appear in Asian language texts that should be treated as equivalent to their ASCII equivalent, such as “half-width” characters.

Character folding is not always a panacea. See this article for caveats on where accent folding can break down.

Whoosh includes several mechanisms for adding character folding to an analyzer.

The whoosh.analysis.CharsetFilter applies a character map to token text. For example, it will filter the tokens u'café', u'resumé', ... to u'cafe', u'resume', .... This is usually the method you’ll want to use unless you need to use a charset to tokenize terms:

from whoosh.analysis import CharsetFilter, StemmingAnalyzer
from whoosh import fields
from import accent_map

# For example, to add an accent-folding filter to a stemming analyzer:
my_analyzer = StemmingAnalyzer() | CharsetFilter(accent_map)

# To use this analyzer in your schema:
my_schema = fields.Schema(content=fields.TEXT(analyzer=my_analyzer))

The whoosh.analysis.CharsetTokenizer uses a Sphinx charset table to both separate terms and perform character folding. This tokenizer is slower than the whoosh.analysis.RegexTokenizer because it loops over each character in Python. If the language(s) you’re indexing can be tokenized using regular expressions, it will be much faster to use RegexTokenizer and CharsetFilter in combination instead of using CharsetTokenizer.

The module contains an accent folding map useful for most Western languages, as well as a much more extensive Sphinx charset table and a function to convert Sphinx charset tables into the character maps required by CharsetTokenizer and CharsetFilter:

# To create a filter using an enourmous character map for most languages
# generated from a Sphinx charset table
from whoosh.analysis import CharsetFilter
from import default_charset, charset_table_to_dict
charmap = charset_table_to_dict(default_charset)
my_analyzer = StemmingAnalyzer() | CharsetFilter(charmap)

(The Sphinx charset table format is described at )