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the fundamentals

A reader (Janet Harding) enquired about the "deepest, most fundamental etymology of the word fundamental".  In order to answer Janet's question fully we need to cover some fundamental points of etymology...

English is an Indo-European language

First, the "deepest, most fundamental" etymology of fundamental is the *Indo-European root *bhudh-, meaning "bottom" or "base". Note the * at the beginning which means that the word is "reconstructed".  In other words, there is no actual documentary evidence for this word but a body of linguists have deduced that it must have existed, based on comparison of words in related languages and known sound-changes.

About 1,500 B.C. a nomadic, cattle-herding people migrated from the Russian steppes into Europe and also into Iran and from there into northern India. The language of this ancient people was never committed to writing so it is entirely reconstructed, hence the asterisk in *Indo-European. As they moved into Europe they split into smaller groups which, due to geographical separation, gave rise to different families of languages: Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Hellenic and so on.

English is a Germanic language

English is fundamentally a Germanic language and, as such, inherited the root *bhudh- in the form of the Old English word botm, whence our "bottom".

Shakespeare spoke modern English; Old English is a different language

Please be careful to distinguish Old English from merely archaic modern English. Shakespeare wrote modern English but a century before his day people were still speaking Middle English.  Old English is what the Anglo-Saxons spoke.  It had five genders, used three letters (eth, thorn and yogh) we no longer have and had inflected word endings like Latin.

The consonants of a language change over time

Speaking of Latin, *bhudh- took on a new look in the Italic languages where the *bh- became an f-.  This change from bh- to f- may seem a little weird to us but it is a recognized linguistic mutation which is also assumed to have occurred as the *Indo-European *bhrater "brother" became frater in Latin.  Such "consonant-shifts", as they are called, were first studied in the 19th century by Jakob Grimm who is better known for Kinder- und Hausmärchen, a collection of fairy tales which he edited with his brother. 

So, substituting f- for *bh-, gives us *fudh- but in some languages the *-udh became nasalized to -und, hence Latin fundus "bottom", fundamentum "foundation (of a house)" and profundus "deep" (whence our profound). Fundamentum ("basis, foundation") entered English as fundament (and its adjective, fundamental) directly from the Medieval Latin of English monks.

English has Romance influences

 Other Latinate words were brought by French-speaking Normans (a.k.a. Norsemen, a.k.a. Vikings) who invaded England in 1066.  The Old French word for "bottom" was fond and "to sink to the bottom" was fondre.  Nowadays we say that a ship foundered. Another meaning of fond was "foundation" and, with this meaning, it entered English sometime before 1400 as fonds (or fonz, or even founce).  In time, the -s was dropped to give fond.  Then scribes, unduly influenced by its origin in the Latin fundus, eventually changed the spelling to fund.  Today, knowing no better, we pronounce it the way it is written.  

Relics of earlier forms may be retained

In modern usage, fund is the usual form (as in "a fund-raising event") but the earlier fonds form is still apparent when we say "we are short of funds".

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