This is the first in a series of …has no word for… which will be posted at 06.00 Central European Time on Tuesdays. for an explanation of the title, click here
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Shallow is a strange word. It is the opposite of deep, having no meaning in itself and only being defined negatively. The OED defines it as:
Not deep, having little extension in a downward direction: said e.g. of water, of a dish or tray, of a depression or excavation in the ground.
Shallowness cannot be measured; it can only be understood as the opposite of depth. A swimming-pool has a shallow end and a deep end but both have depth: the shallow end may be 50cm deep.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Spanish, like other Romance languages, has no word for shallow (though German has seicht). The usual translation in Spanish would be poco profundo. Although poco means little, in fact in such constructions it is effectively a negation so the Spanish for shallow is not deep..
That is when it comes to measuring vertical depth, a swimming-pool, a river, a well, a grave etc. But a shallow dish could be a plato llano (flat plate), which could also be a dinner plate.
In English we take a deep breath of breathe deeply; shallow breathing is a sign of some problem. In Spanish this is respiración superficial and the same word could refer to a shallow person. That could also be superficial in English but a shallow conversation might be frívolo or banal.
A slope can be shallow. This is the opposite of steep. In Spanish it is poca or baja pendiente (little or low slope). Here poca is not a negative and does mean little.