Fill a shallow pan with water, not too deep at all. Tap your fingertip lightly on the surface: it will send concentric ripples out, and a little droplet will fall off your digit. For no particularly good reason, this little gesture is what the sound (and saying) of the word shallow makes me think of, and vice versa.
There is much to this word, though. It hushes “sh” to start with, and its parallel ripples ll that come with the soft tap of the tongue tip could at any time harden just a little to reduce the thin to no thickness at all and make the shallow a shadow. And at the end the tongue recedes to the depths of the mouth, pulling back as the lips round to make as deep an articulation as we have in English. And yet the word’s sense is some level as low as you can allow.
Well, it all goes to show… actually, when all goes into show, we get shallow again. We do not get something hollow, but we do get hallows a bit out of place. And in the middle, the ll – oh! walls? How shall we account for all this? The word’s form is so deep in colour, even as its object seems sallow.
Its history goes straight back into the Germanic roots, and it seems to be cognate with shoal. As Laurie Miller has reminded me in suggesting this word, you won’t find an equivalent word for this in French. Whereas in English we have a scale with two directions, deep and shallow, in French there is only one direction, profond (deep); something that is not very deep is… well, not very deep: peu profond. So the existence of our word shallow adds a bit more depth to our tongue.
But so what if English has one word for ‘shallow’ and French has none? It’s not that France lacks shallow waters or shallow people. Not everyone there is Jean-Paul Sartre. This is a country that has given us as many foppish courtiers as scheming Richelieus. Their famous studied insouciance and carefully carefree fashions present many a person as deeply shallow, but in the end they’re just people after all. And they live in the world and use the language they have. Languages are variously deep in their various ways, and the store of words is not a solid guide to the store of reality they have to represent; the world is always deeper than the word.
So we learn our words, we learn about our words, we learn to use our words, we learn the relations of our words to our worlds. And in all this we should remember what Alexander Pope told us:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.