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

Warm-up Activity
The Lord's Prayer and the Evolution of English

Take what follows as a suggestion.  Feel free to modify it in any way you think appropriate given the group with which you work.  When you've finished, go to the main activity.

  1. Without saying anything about it, give each student a written copy of the Old English/Anglo-Saxon version of The Lord's Prayer (available online at  Ask them to try to decide in what language the words on the paper they've received are written.  After a minute or so, take possibilities and facilitate the development of a consensus answer, but do not tell students if they are correct.
  2. Again without saying anything, give each student a written copy of the complete or partial Middle English version of The Lord's Prayer (available online at Lord's Prayer: Middle English).  Again, have them try to reach a consensus on the language in which it is written.
  3. If your students have not yet discovered it, point out that the first paper contains The Lord's Prayer as it was written in English at about 1000 CE (common era); while the second contains the same prayer as it was written in English at about 1400 CE.  You might explain that you are using The Lord's Prayer because it was one of the first things written down in English, and that it was repeatedly written in whatever was then contemporary English right up to the present.  Studying its various incarnations therefore gives us a good look at how English has changed over the last thousand years.
  4. As the second version is much closer to modern English, it should be more easily recognizable.  Ask students to what they'd attribute the visible changes in this 300-400 year period.  Those with any background in European history should recognize that the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 would be a good first answer.  You can explain that victors in war often impose their language on the defeated enemy.  In this case, it is evident that English became Frenchified, and to a large extent remains so to this day.  However, war is not the only thing that causes languages to evolve.  English kept changing.  To illustrate, you can show students The Lord's Prayer in Modern English (available online at, both Early Modern (from the King James Bible) and Late Modern (your choice from the available selections).
  5. With this as a background, you can point out that historians constantly deal with changing language in their efforts to understand the past.  The activity they are about to undertake is designed to give them practical experience in this area.

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original web posting: Monday, December 20, 1999
last modified: Friday, April 02, 2010