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I’m translating some old letters, and in one of them, written around 1834, there is a description of the writer’s view from her upstairs balcony which begins thus:

La vue est charmante d’ici; droit devant j’ai la porte principale de la ville qui est à l’autre extremité de [mor?], & la rue principale s’en suit, ornée de maisons des deux côtés, & formant comme une espèce de perspective

(I don’t know what ‘mor’ is supposed to be; it’s probably incorrectly transcribed, but I don’t have access to the actual letter yet.)

What exactly is meant by espèce in this context? The normal (current) meaning of espèce is of course ‘type, kind, species’, but that doesn’t really seem to fit very well here, at least not in English, and not with comme in front of it. A road adorned with houses on both sides would not generally be said to “form as if a type of perspective”.

Looking at some of the meanings given in the TLFi definition of espèce, it seems the original sense was more along the lines of a physical form which produces perception (not that I’m really sure I fully understand what exactly that means, but that’s just because I don’t understand philosophy in general). That would perhaps make a bit more sense: the road with the houses has an ‘external image’, as it were, that creates the perception of perspective in the viewer.

Am I close here? Is that what comme une espèce de perspective is supposed to mean? Or does it really just mean “sort of like a kind of perspective”

  • "mor" could have been incorrectly transcribed from "moi", as in "à l'autre extremité de moi". Doesn't sound great but very plausible confusion between the 'r' and the 'i' – Nico Mezeret Mar 22 '17 at 9:32
  • @NicoMezeret Oh yes, that makes sense! Quite a likely mistranscription too, since it’s all written in a sprawly, cursive hand. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '17 at 9:34
  • Slightly related: french.stackexchange.com/questions/24916/… – jlliagre Mar 22 '17 at 11:16
  • A small comment on top of the other answers: I would be careful with this expression from a stylistic point of view. As mentioned by Simon, it is used in the context of insults, so it can be tainted by that in our background semantic networks around the word. For me, it does have this slightly derogatory connotation, and depending on the context, I would rather use type, sorte, genre, or manière, which don't carry the same semantic baggage, so leave no room for a possible misinterpretation. – Frank Mar 22 '17 at 15:49
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"une espèce de" is often used to the same effect as the English "a kind of", "a sort of", or even "something like"

In this case,

formant comme une espèce de perspective

could indeed be translated as

creating a kind of perspective / something like a perspective

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"Une espèce de" can mean "sort of" in a figurative way, when you say it "looks a bit like", it's "partially".

Synonyms: "une sorte de", "un genre de".

Often used when you can't really describe something because it's not common.

Ce film est une espèce de western médiéval avec des dinosaures robotiques.

It is so a locution that a very common mistake is to say "un espèce de" when talking about something masculine ("c'est un espèce d'avion").

Of course you can say "une espèce de" in a literal meaning of "species".


And note it can be used as an insult, similar to "you" like in South Park:

You bastard!

Espèce d'enfoiré !

  • I want to watch that movie now! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '17 at 9:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I want too but sadly I just made it up. + edited for a bonus – Destal Mar 22 '17 at 9:37
  • I was afraid of that! :-( (I knew about the insulting use as well, though I discounted that as being extremely unlikely in the given context.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '17 at 9:39
  • There is nothing rude in une espèce de perspective but there is still a slight negative meaning shared by alternatives like genre and, to a lesser extent, sorte conveying some sort of imperfection compared with une perspective and un type de perspective which are neutral. – jlliagre Mar 22 '17 at 16:50
  • @jlliagre I'd say it mainly depends on how you say it: "j'adore ce film, c'est [une espèce/un genre/une sorte] de western futuriste avec des dinosaures !" versus "je déteste ce film, c'est [une espèce/un genre/une sorte] de western futuriste avec des dinosaures...". – Destal Mar 22 '17 at 18:29

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