In my book The Snake Fence, due out in a few weeks, you may be surprised to see my Quaker characters using “thee” and “thy,” but not “thou.” Time for a little refresher grammar lesson.
Quakers like (a few still do) to use “thee” and “thy” for singular, intimate (all in the family) situations and “you” and “your” for everyone else. However, they don’t use “thou.” “Thou” is left over from King James English, as in the KJV Bible, and is quite familiar and comfortable to many Americans. But Quakers came years after King James, and the language had changed. Languages do that. Drives English teachers nuts, but it happens.
By the 18th Century, when The Snake Fence takes place, hardly anyone except Quakers used “thee” and “thy.” In fact, if people used those pronouns, others could be pretty sure they were hearing Quakers. Everyone else had gone to “you” and “your.”
So here’s the Prologue to The Snake Fence, to give you the sound of it. Tune your ear to Quaker talk, and before you know it, you’ll be into the story.
“What’s this, Pa?” I asked.
“Open it,” he said.
I untied the string and carefully removed the brown wrapping paper. Inside was a tall narrow book bound in leather. There was no writing inside. All the pages were blank.
I looked at Pa with questions on my face.
“It’s an account book, Noble,” Pa said. “Thee is sixteen now, a finished apprentice, so thee should keep accounts, to know where thee stands.”
“Where I stand?” I was still confused.
“Every time thee makes any financial transaction, write it in this book. When thee makes something for a customer, set down its value and how he will recompense thee. If thee owes ought to anyone, write it as thy debt. Debits on one side, credits on the facing page. Then on any given day, thee will know thy worth.”
Where did I stand? What was my worth? I longed to know. Pa was thinking of money, as he always did, but I wondered where I stood on bigger questions. And whether I was worth anything at all.
At that moment, I had nothing to write in the book. My apprentice piece was a table, an unusual assignment for a mere carpenter. Mostly, carpenters do rougher work, like framing a house or building a shed. My table was beautiful, the boards invisibly joined, the legs turned on the lathe, the finish smooth to the touch. Making it had given me the dream of becoming a cabinetmaker, or joiner. But then my master sold the table, kept the money, and my apprenticeship was ended. I was a trained carpenter, but who would hire me as a journeyman without my own tools? And without a job, how could I buy tools? And how could I afford to get more training to become a cabinetmaker?
So Pa had said, “Come home and work on the farm with thy brothers and me. The way will become clear. Bide thy time.”
For how long? Till I lost all my woodworking skills and could do naught but farm? I was stuck, sitting on the snake fence between childhood and manhood. I was ready to earn a living like a man. But here I was back home again, taking orders from Pa. There was a whole world out there, and I wanted to be part of it. There were problems to solve and dangers to overcome. Could I make a difference in anything?
“Thankee, Pa,” I said half-heartedly. “I’ll keep accounts.”
I took the new book upstairs to the bedroom I shared with Ben and put it on the low desk. Idly, I turned the blank pages and wondered how I would fill them. There were enough to last a lifetime, I thought.
Earn and spend. That’s all Pa thought about.
Then a new idea struck me. I did want to know where I stood and what I was worth, but in a different way. These pages could carry more than one kind of account.