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A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

In July 1585, the first English settlers began their attempt to build a colony in North America.  They survived one year before abandoning their efforts and returning to England.  In April 1587, John White, one of the first colonists, led a second attempt to establish a permanent colony.  Within a few months, a supply shortage forced him to sail back to England.  He was unable to return until 1590 when he found that all other members of the second colony had disappeared. 

In 1588, while White was back in England searching for a way to return to Virginia, Thomas Harriot, another member of the first colony, published his account of that effort.  Theodor de Bry republished it in 1590, with an addendum of 28 engravings based on watercolors by White, as part of his folio edition on the colonization of America. 

In this activity, students use a facsimile of one of de Bry's engraved pages to experience how historians work, and to see how the English language has changed over the past 400+ years.

  1. Before you start, you'll need copies of the following for each student.
  1. Warming up
  2. Conducting the activity
  3. For more ideas that can be developed to extend this activity, have a look at these

This is a link to Horace Miner's classic article published in American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503-507.  If you are unfamiliar with it, and haven't discerned the identity of the Nacirema by the time you finish reading; try reversing the letters in Nacirema.  Miner's work shows how critical an author's choice of words is to the meaning we make from what we hear and read.  And, of course word choice depends so much on one's assumptions and perspective.  But that is another lesson.

When I decided to use this article with a group of middle school students, I realized that it was beyond most of their reading abilities.  Therefore, I took the liberty of excerpting it to make it more accessible to them.  Click here to see the assignment sheet I came up with for them.

A simpler story, most probably inspired by Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, is The Sacred Rac Click here to see how one teacher uses it in the classroom.

Confusion often reigns when U.S. speakers converse with their British cousins.   The reason - the same words sometimes have different meanings.  BritSpeak will help you negotiate potential minefields.

Here are links to additional BritSpeak sites.

BritSpeak Dictionary

English As A Second Language for Americans

The English-to-American Dictionary

Antiques Roadshow BritSpeak Game

Google's search results for BritSpeak

A project of the Long Now Foundation, the Rosetta Project is an attempt to preserve humanity's linguistic heritage for future generations.  The idea is to archive 1,000 human languages on a modern Rosetta Stone in a format that will survive millennia.  They are seeking help.  Perhaps you and/or your students can assist.

To show your students the difficulty of retaining accurate meaning when translating, have them try an activity like this.  Use one (or all) of the free translation services linked below to take an English statement, translate it to another language, then use the service to translate the resulting phrase back into English.  I tried it on July 9, 1999 (who knows, these may get better with time) with  Alta Vista and Free Translation.  I began with the adage, "A penny saved is a penny earned."  I had both translate the adage into French, then back into English.  Alta Vista returned, "a backed up penny is a penny gained".  Free translation came back with "a saved penny is an earned penny".  I also tried, "Lie down with dogs and you'll get up with fleas."  Alta Vista returned, "Sleep you with dogs and you will rise with chips"; while free translation came up with "to put to bed itself with the dogs and you will get up with fleas".

Alta Vista Connections: Translations with Systran

Translate text

Google Translations

NPR's All Things Considered (ATC) broadcast a segment discussing the Alta Vista translator on February 12, 1998.  Click here to open a window to that segment.  Click on the Listen button to hear the story.

Should you want to translate individual words, GoToWorld .com once allowed you to do so among 33 languages.

If you have an aspiring programmer or group of programmers in your class, maybe they'll want to try to write a program that will translate modern English into 16th century English and vice versa.  If so, have them test it with sections from the Briefe and True Report.

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original web posting: Thursday, July 8, 1999
last modified: Sunday, July 17, 2011