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
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
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".
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
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
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".