Odeuropa Team Milestone: Our First In-Person, Hands-On Meeting


Parisian street art: “Pendre au nez. Les murs ont des oreilles” or “Hang onto the nose. The walls have ears.” Photo: Inger Leemans.

After more than nine months of remote working due to the pandemic, we finally brought part of the Odeuropa team together. This October, 11 Odeuropa team members, representing all work packages and almost every project partner, met in Paris to smell things, co-create annotated data, bridge gaps between core concepts, and even challenge each other to a game of foosball. This lockdown period has been a burden for all research teams, but for a project researching smells and olfactory heritage, the audiovisual-biased world of online working has been a severe challenge.

Odeuropa team members Lizzie Marx and Victoria-Anne Michel smelling books during the smell walk at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Photo: Inger Leemans.

We approached this first in-person gathering ‘nose-first’ with the help of our PhD student, Victoria-Anne Michel who organized an olfactory workshop and smell walk for the team. During the workshop, we were able to smell perfumes and raw materials which we then categorized and made associations with through our sense of touch. During our smell walk through the different spaces within the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Richelieu) we stuck our noses into a few books, old and new. While walking around the place, we first inhaled the general atmosphere, which sensory researcher Kate McLean calls “smell catching.” We then went “smell hunting” in specific spots. Through this exercise, we felt the contrasts of olfactory atmospheres, or “smellscapes”; from the sleek and modern Performing Arts reading room, the wax wooden rotunda, the futuristic corridor leading to the old-fashioned Manuscripts reading room, and, finally, the impressive, bright, cathedral-looking Labrouste reading room. The discussions that followed were a mix of poetic impressions, technical considerations like the different types of air control systems, and personal scent memories. With this, olfaction functions as both an emotional and spatial sense! Special thanks to the curators Sylvie Bourel, Hervé Grosdoit-Artur and Mathieu Lescuyer, without whom this smellwalk would not have been possible.

This trip not only allowed us to get to know each other and train our noses, but also to truly invest in interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges within Odeuropa and beyond. Throughout the few days, we were able to  meet with researchers, heritage groups and other parties involved in the perfume and scent culture industry.

Cecilia Bembibre in the flamingo room at the press launch of the Sensory Odyssey experience. Photo: Sofia Ehrich.

Some highlights from our trip:

  • We received a warm welcome at the Osmothèque – the historic perfume conservatory based in Versailles – discussing future collaborations around olfactory heritage with the President, Head of Scientific Committee and Communications director of Osmothèque (and smelling some of the nose-boggling perfumes and odorants safeguarded by the institute);
  • We attended the press launch of Sensory Odyssey, a multisensory immersive event in the Natural History Museum of Paris;
  • We met with the representatives of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux to discuss olfactory approaches to heritage representation;
  • We had drinks with the acclaimed French historian Annick Le Guérer, to discuss her participating in one of our future Smellinars, among other things (more to be announced later);
  • We visited the Voyages Immobiles exhibition to see how smells were presented and communicated in an event for general publics
  • We annotated 371 perfumed gloves in paintings;
  • Lastly, we had four trips together to the supermarket, ate loads of croissants and had some adventures with Vélib bikes.

Alas, three days was surely not enough for all our ambitions – so much is going on in the realm of olfactory heritage in France. So: we’ll be back!


Part of the Odeuropa team having lunch together at a Parisian restaurant. Photo: Marieke van Erp.

We’re hiring! Odeuropa is looking for a Language Technology & Semantic Web researcher

We’re looking to strengthen our language technology and semantic web research teams with a 2-year postdoc position based at KNAW Humanities Cluster in Amsterdam in the Digital Humanities Research Lab. The Amsterdam team is responsible for leading the task on language technology development of historical olfactory information extraction, i.e. detecting references to smells from old texts. Together with the other project partners in the Text Work Package, you would ensure that the language technology developed in Odeuropa can deal with historical language variation and that it is properly represented and findable in the Olfactory Knowledge Graph that is being developed as part of the Semantic Web Work Package.

Besides the Odeuropa tasks, you will be able to advance your own research line and supervise graduate students. Find out more about the vacancy and how to apply on the KNAW Humanities Cluster vacancies web page. The deadline for applications is 25 October 2021.



Understanding the Olfactory Lexicon

Linguists have observed in several studies that languages seem to have a smaller vocabulary to describe smells compared to other senses. Odours are often described borrowing terms from other senses, for example “sweet” or “fresh”, or relying on qualities of objects, like “musky” or “metallic”. On the other hand, other domains such as perfumery and oenology make use of extremely precise and structured repositories of terms and qualities used by professionals for describing perfumes and wines from an olfactory perspective. One of the goals of the text processing team of Odeuropa is to understand these phenomena and analyse whether there are differences across languages in the way in which odours are described. Is the smell-related dimension of the olfactory vocabulary something that is more evident in some languages? For example, does Slovenian, which is a Balto-Slavic language, have different characteristics in terms of olfactory vocabulary compared to Romance or Germanic languages like Italian and English? If ‘yes’, are there historical or cultural reasons for this?

We aim to address these questions using text mining techniques by processing large amounts of digitised texts covering four centuries and automatically extracting the terminology pertaining to smell. To this purpose, we are collecting freely available texts issued between 1650 and 1925 and covering different domains, in the seven project languages (English, German, French, Latin, Dutch, Slovene, and Italian). These texts range from travel literature to scientific texts and medical records. This process takes a long time because after preparing a detailed list of available sources, the data need to be downloaded, cleaned, standardised and accompanied with the correct metadata. While the Odeuropa multilingual corpus is being completed, we are testing different approaches to terminology extraction. Our testbed is the GoogleNgram repository, a large collection of n-grams (i.e. word sequences) extracted from Google Books divided by year of publication.

The n-grams cover the period of interest for Odeuropa, allowing us to perform preliminary analyses aimed at comparing terminology in multiple languages over time. In this analysis, we start from a small list of smell-related words provided by Odeuropa domain experts such as “odour”, “smelly”, “reek”. We then extract for different time periods the terms that have the highest association strength with the smell words, meaning that they tend to appear together more frequently than usual. Terms co-occurring with the smell words provide a concise overview of the semantic domains associated with odours over time, and make comparisons across languages possible. For example, we can analyse terms related to “odor” (English) , “odore” (Italian) and “reuk” (Dutch) for the n-grams between 1900 and 1925. These are displayed in the picture below, where the bubble dimension is proportional to the association strength. Some concepts mentioned in relation to smell seem to be present for the three languages, for example flowers, tobacco and sanctity. On the other hand, in English, medical-related terms are more present, while for Italian food and beverages are mentioned (see also “sapore” / “taste”) and for Dutch, fishing seems to play a role in the word association. For now, our results are too preliminary to draw conclusions on olfactory terminology, but we are really looking forward to understanding what texts from the past tell us about odours and their story.

Google ngram visualisation
Terms extracted from Google N-grams that are more frequently used associated with “odor”, “odore” and “reuk”.

Paper: Towards Olfactory Information Extraction from Text – A Case Study on Detecting Smell Experiences in Novels

This weekend, Marieke van Erp presented a paper on extracting olfactory information from English text at the 4th Joint SIGHUM Workshop on Computational Linguistics for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, Humanities and Literature, organised in conjunction with COLING 2020. The paper was presented in a poster presentation, sadly not in Barcelona, but in a gather.town session.

For this paper, we did a first set of experiments into how we can best recognise references to smell in texts, which is an important task in Odeuropa’s Work Package 3.  For this paper, we first created an annotated dataset, i.e. a set of texts in which humans (= Odeuropa team members) marked whether the text described a reference to a smell. We then created patterns based on a set of smell related words from the Cambridge dictionary of English to such as ‘smells like X’ and ‘a Y fragrance’ where X and Y can stand for nouns and adjectives. We ran the patterns over a large set of texts to see if we could find more expressions referring to smells in text as compared to only using the dictionary smell keywords, and our experiments showed that patterns indeed worked better than keywords. In Odeuropa, we will further build on this, as well as try out other methods (such as machine learning) to recognise references to smells in Latin, English, Italian, German, French, Dutch, and Slovene texts from 1600 – 1920 across different genres.

This research paper was based on the Ryan Brate’s MSc thesis work which he did for the University of Amsterdam’s Data Science degree programme under the supervision of prof. dr. Paul Groth and dr. Marieke van Erp. Full citation:

Brate, Ryan, Paul Groth, and Marieke van Erp. “Towards Olfactory Information Extraction from Text: A Case Study on Detecting Smell Experiences in Novels.” In Proceedings of the The 4th Joint SIGHUM Workshop on Computational Linguistics for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, Humanities and Literature, pp. 147-155. 2020.