Feeling out of place in Manila? Try speaking its language

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Manila, image from Wikimedia Commons


When I first read the headline of Raul Dancel’s article, Back home in Manila, and feeling out of place, I eagerly began to read it. Finally, I thought, here is an insightful article written by an actual journalist who can give voice to the feelings I have had about my hometown for so many years. Because, you see, if I’m going to be honest, just like Mr. Dancel, whenever I am back home in Manila I also feel out of place.

I am a Metro Manila girl through and through. My parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, were all born and raised there, and so was I. I lived 21 out of my 30 years in Manila, never leaving the island of Luzon until I was 16, or the Philippines itself until I was 20. Given such a long history with the place, I should know my hometown like the back of my own hand, but the fact is, I don’t. This is because those 21 years I spent living in it were all very sheltered years, where my experience of Metro Manila was largely limited to Caloocan City, where I grew up, and Quezon City, where I went to university. I was a young student living with my parents, with little means or desire to truly get to know the city of my birth.

I graduated from college in April 2005, and in a few months I was on a plane taking me to a new country in a new continent, where I was to begin a new phase in my life. For a year I did my Master’s degree in Salamanca, Spain, then I spent the next six years working for a PhD in Barcelona. This was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in Oxford, where I find myself now.

I have been living in Europe for almost a decade, and about halfway in, something changed. I was on one of my visits to Manila when I realized that my hometown had become a stranger. My old haunts were gone or completely transformed, and the city seemed much louder, more crowded. I felt, dare I say it, out of place.

To be fair, this is as much my own fault as Manila’s. I may have grown up in the Philippines, but it was in Europe that I matured. In the past decade, I adapted to a European way of life, and I never acquired the skills one needs to live as an independent adult in a sprawling Asian megametropolis. I have never learned how to drive, for instance. This is not a problem at all in walking cities like Salamanca, Barcelona and Oxford, but in car-centric Manila, this is a serious disadvantage. I would find it very difficult to adjust to Manila if I had to move back there, but I would feel exactly the same way if I had to move to Los Angeles or Bogotá.

I agree with Mr. Dancel that there are certain things in Manila that need to be changed. Manilans really should expect their city to be much safer than it is, and they deserve a much, much better transport system than the one they have now. But, as a linguist, what I take issue with is the writer’s negative stance towards the one thing that has always made me feel at home in my hometown: the language.

There is no greater joy than to arrive in Manila and revert to the language patterns of my youth: to leave behind the rhythmic cadences of the British accent to once again hear the one-tap r’s and unaspirated t’s of Philippine speech, to use old, familiar vocabulary and marvel at quirky new local coinages. It pains me to see the Philippine English expressions I am trying to codify in my daily work as a lexicographer being described in the same terms as grave societal problems like traffic congestion and unsafe drinking water.

I wonder though, if Mr. Dancel were in a KFC in New York, and the American cashier insisted on saying to go the same way the Filipino cashier in the Manila KFC insisted on saying take-out, would he have stood his ground as firmly, clinging on to his Singaporean take-away? Would he have gone around in Vancouver saying ang moh and tapao, expecting Canadians to understand him and feeling discomfited when they did not?

If there is one thing that all Filipinos should learn about the English language, one thing that is more important than subject-verb agreement or avoiding dangling modifiers, it is that it is a language that is spoken all over the world, and as such has developed a wide range of varieties, each with its own distinctive pronunciation, syntax, and lexis. Not one of these many varieties is intrinsically superior to another. To be globally competitive, Filipinos should be cognizant of this fact, and use it to their advantage. But the first step to doing this is to recognize that they themselves speak a unique variety of English, one that they should embrace, not reject.

True global Filipinos are not those who have successfully gotten rid of their Filipino accent to adopt a much more useful foreign one, but those who know how to adapt their speech so as to better communicate with those around them. I see this all the time: Filipinos in Spain who speak fluent Spanish at work but go home and start speaking Ilocano as if they had never left Ilocos; Filipino-Americans who talk with a West Coast accent, yet pepper their sentences with all kinds of Pinoy words; Filipino call center agents who can talk to their clients with a clear British accent but, as soon as they hang up the phone, go back to their own native accent with the greatest of ease.

Global Filipinos know that when in Singapore or London, you can perfectly well look for the loo, but in Boston or Chicago, you need to ask for the restroom, and in Hong Kong, the washroom. And when in Manila? They know how to say comfort room, and proudly!

Unlike Mr. Dancel, what I admire most about Singaporeans is not their clean streets or their perfectly stacked HDB blocks or their “Singapore etiquette”, but the way many of them persist on using Singlish even with their own government’s efforts to stamp it out of them in favor of supposedly “correct” British English. They hold on to Singlish as a point of pride, as a way of expressing their cultural identity even as they use a language imposed by a colonial power. If only Filipinos can view Philippine English in the same manner, then we may more easily find our place in the world, and not feel so out of place in our own country.

So if you are a returning Manilan and finding your hometown a stranger, why not try speaking its language? You may find that Manila is not a stranger at all, but a welcome old friend.


The Philippines (and Philippine English) on the BBC

The BBC recently aired an hour-long documentary with the title “World’s Busiest Maternity Ward”. Unsurprisingly, this maternity ward is located in the Philippines, and what I thought was going to be a Midwives-style, life-in-the-delivery-room reality special was in fact an examination of the huge divide between the rich and the poor in the great city of Manila, and the burgeoning middle class poised to close this gap and thus provide a better future for the tens of thousands of new Filipinos born each year.

For those who are in the UK and have access to BBC iPlayer, you can watch the documentary in its entirety here. For everyone else, I do hope this makes it way to Youtube someday soon, but for now here is a short clip.

What is most interesting for me as a linguist is of course the language. It should be noted that the people interviewed by the host Anita Rani in the slums of Tondo, people who represented Manila’s poorest of the poor and could hardly be expected to be highly educated, had a good enough grasp of English to understand Rani’s questions with no translation, and to even answer some of them in perfectly coherent sentences. The documentary also shows just how central the English language is to the socioeconomic advancement of many Filipinos: from the British-accented call center agents working in posh offices in Makati to Junalyn, a young girl from Tondo hoping to get a much dreamed-of job in the local office of a multinational bank. All these people recognized that in order to do well in their chosen careers, they had to speak good English. in Junalyn’s case, the stakes were even higher: she needed a job in Makati to lift her family out of poverty, and doing this required English-language skills.

And of course, the documentary provides the perfect opportunity to hear the Filipino accent for those who are not familiar with it, and to see some very good examples of Philippine English usage. In the clip above is one example. Ana Apruebo, the most senior nurse in the maternity ward of Fabella Hospital, tells a flabbergasted Anita Rani that she has delivered around 200,000 babies in her career. To justify such a mind-boggling number, she says, “Because I’m already here since 1986!” A classic Philippine English construction, where the English adverb already is used as a substitute for the untranslatable Tagalog particle na.

The show even gives a glimpse of the unflappable Filipino spirit. Rani, standing in the middle of the Fabella maternity ward, surrounded by women delivering babies left and right, could not help but comment on the calm, controlled atmosphere in such a high-tension situation. No screaming, no panicking, just matter-of-fact efficiency, “maternity in an industrial scale”.

And as a human-interest story, the documentary can be quite touching in parts. I must admit that by the end, when an overjoyed Junalyn announced that she got the job at the bank, I could feel the tears well up.

Barangay: From boat to vote

Photo by QuecyKeith (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by QuecyKeith (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, October 28, millions of Filipinos all over the country cast their ballots in the triennial barangay elections. The barangay (abbreviated Brgy. or Bgy.) is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, roughly equivalent to the concept of village, district or ward. Larger barangays can be further subdivided into smaller areas designated by the Tagalog term purok, and the Spanish word sitio.

The word barangay has been adopted into Philippine English from Tagalog, but its origins can be traced back to pre-colonial times. The modern term is derived from the Austronesian word balangay, which refers to a type of boat used by pre-Hispanic Filipino communities. Archaelogical evidence suggests that groups of balangays were used by early Filipinos to travel across Southeast Asia as early as the 10th century. Remnants of what could possibly be a balangay “mother boat” were recently unearthed in Butuan, in southern Philippines, providing even more tantalizing clues on Butuan’s role as a pan-Asian cultural hub, and on the seafaring traditions of our Malayo-Polynesian ancestors.

The original barangays were small coastal or riverine settlements consisting of 50 to 100 families, but some of them grew to become large, cosmopolitan principalities with trade links to the rest of Southeast Asia. These pre-colonial societies were headed by an aristocratic class called datu.

With the arrival of the Spanish, barangays were combined to form towns, headed by a town chief called by the Spanish-Tagalog hybrid expression cabeza de barangay, still in use today.

The word barangay fell into disuse during the American period, when it was replaced by the Spanish term barrio (abbreviated Bo.). The word’s resurgence in the 1970s is largely thanks to former President Ferdinand Marcos, who ordered that the name barangay be restored, and used the idealized vision of baranganic democracy as a key element in the participatory politics of his New Society.

The word survived Marcos’ overthrow in the 1986 EDSA revolution, and endures today as an integral part of our political system. Barangay elections are hard-fought contests. From a lexical perspective, barangay is extremely productive, giving rise to a wide range of expressions: barangay captain (another name for cabeza de barangay), barangay officials, barangay tanod (unarmed watchmen that act as barangay police), barangay council, barangay hall, barangay clearance, and of course, barangay elections.

Did you do right by your barangay and vote?

Tierra adorada, land of the morning, bayang magiliw

Wednesday, June 12 marks the 115th anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence from Spain. In commemoration of this significant event, here are three versions of our national anthem. Our hymn, just like many other aspects of our culture, is multilingual and reflective of our country’s many-layered history.

The original version is in Spanish, a beautiful piece of poetry written in 1899 by Tondo-born soldier and poet José Palma. Titled Filipinas, It was later set to the music of Marcha Nacional Filipina, a rousing composition by musician Julián Felipe played on that historic day in Kawit, Cavite.

Tierra adorada
Hija del sol de Oriente
Su fuego ardiente en ti latiendo está.
Patria de amores
Del heroismo cuna,
Los invasores
No te hallarán jamás.
En tu azul cielo, en tus auras,
En tus montes y en tu mar
Esplende y late el poema
De tu amada libertad.
Tu pabellón, que en las lides
La victoria iluminó
No verá nunca apagados
Sus estrellas y su sol.
Tierra de dichas, del sol y amores,
En tu regazo dulce es vivir.
Es una gloria para tus hijos,
Cuando te ofenden, por ti morir.

In one of Philippine history’s many little ironies, just a few a months after this triumphal proclamation of independence, the old Spanish-speaking colonizers we thought we had gotten rid of sold us to some new, English-speaking colonizers for a few million dollars. But we’re not going to dwell on that on such a day as this. Just enjoy the following English version of our national anthem:

Land of the morning,
Child of the sun returning,
With fervor burning,
Thee do our souls adore.
Land dear and holy,
Cradle of noble heroes,
Ne’er shall invaders
Trample thy sacred shore.
Ever within thy skies and through thy clouds
And o’er thy hills and sea,
Do we behold the radiance, feel and throb,
Of glorious liberty.
Thy banner, dear to all our hearts,
Its sun and stars alight,
O never shall its shining field
Be dimmed by tyrant’s might!
Beautiful land of love,
O land of light,
In thine embrace ’tis rapture to lie,
But it is glory ever, when thou art wronged,
For us, thy sons to suffer and die.

Although the Flag Law banned the use of Filipino nationalist symbols during the early years of the American occupation, it was repealed in 1919 and our hymn was translated into English. The one above is the most popular version, written by Senator Camilo Osías and an American, Mary A. Lane. Imagine, though, an American writing about the Philippines being a land whose flag’s shining field will never be dimmed by tyrant’s might, just when her country had us under its power; and about how it is glory for Filipinos to suffer and die when their country is wronged, just a few years after thousands of them did just that in the hands of American soldiers during the Philippine-American War. It boggles the mind!

I much prefer the Filipino version, written when we were finally free from foreign control (at least officially). The following is the one that I had to sing with my classmates at 7 a.m. every single school day for over a decade. Handa, awit:

Bayang magiliw
Perlas ng Silanganan,
Alab ng puso,
Sa dibdib mo’y buhay.
Lupang Hinirang,
Duyan ka ng magiting,
Sa manlulupig,
Di ka pasisiil.
Sa dagat at bundok,
Sa simoy at sa langit mong bughaw,
May dilag ang tula
At awit sa paglayang minamahal.
Ang kislap ng watawat mo’y
Tagumpay na nagniningning,
Ang bituin at araw niya
Kailan pa ma’y di magdidilim.
Lupa ng araw, ng luwalhati’t pagsinta,
Buhay ay langit sa piling mo;
Aming ligaya, na pag may mang-aapi
Ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo.

My favorite line from all these versions is from the Spanish one: en tu regazo dulce es vivir. It conjures this image in my mind of my country as a loving mother on whose lap I sit, enjoying the warmth of her tropical embrace, looking up at the coconut trees set against the background of her cloudless blue skies, basking in the glow of her dazzling sun.

Sorry for the nostalgia; I’ve just been in England for too long and I desperately need some sunshine. And it is our national day after all.

The end of Filipino time?

Last Saturday I spent a fascinating morning at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, home of the Prime Meridian of the World, Longitude 000° 00′ 00″.

Our shadows on the Prime Meridian

Our shadows on the Prime Meridian

I was taken back to a time before atomic clocks or quartz watches or global positioning systems, when survival at sea depended entirely on one’s ability to determine east-west position by calculating the time difference between Greenwich and one’s current location. Accurate timekeeping for navigation was a major preoccupation for some of the leading scientists and engineers of the day, and it wasn’t until John Harrison’s marine chronometer that the longitude problem was finally solved.

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House

Nowadays, finding out the exact time takes nothing more than a glance at a watch face or a cellphone screen. Our personal and working lives are ruled by our timekeeping devices, and this is reflected by the many expressions in our languages that involve the concept of time. In English, for example:

on the value of time: time is gold, time is precious, time is money

on the power of time: time heals all wounds, only time will tell

Time expressions in English

Time expressions in English

And yet it is also true that different cultures have different perceptions of time and punctuality: what counts as fashionable lateness in one country is gross disrespect in another. I myself tend to measure the punctuality of a nation through the punctuality of its urban buses. German buses are punctual to the very last second, while Italian buses just arrive whenever they want, timetable be damned. As for Filipino buses? Filipino buses follow Filipino time.

What is Filipino time? The Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary gives the following definition:

Filipino time, n. Philippine English Informal a time system in which people expect that everyone will be late in keeping appointments, schedules, etc. (opposed to American time).

Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary for High School

Let me give an example. If you are going to have a party and you want everyone to come at 9:00 pm, real time, then you should invite them to do so at 8:00 pm or even earlier, because that is how real time translates to Filipino time.

Indeed, tardiness is so entrenched in Filipino culture that making people wait is even considered a mark of privilege. In the Philippines, it is absolutely normal, even expected, for a ceremony to start hours later than planned, especially if someone important is giving a speech. And with the hopeless traffic congestion in cities such as Metro Manila, even the most time-conscious of individuals sometimes cannot help but be late.

There is a widespread belief that we got our lax timekeeping from the Spanish, and indeed, Spain and Latin American nations seem to share our laissez-faire attitude towards time and punctuality. I will not go as far as blame Spain for our tardiness, but what I will say is that Spanish has had a very strong influence on the linguistic expression of time in the Philippines. The very word for time in Tagalog is oras, from the Spanish hora. We divide time into hours (oras, from Sp. hora), minutes (minuto, from Sp. minuto) and seconds (segundo, from Sp. segundo). Our words for watch and clock also come from Spanish: relos (watch) is from reloj, while orasan (clock) is derived from hora. If we’re not telling time in English, we’re doing it in Spanish:

Anong oras na? Ten o’clock na ba?

A las diyes na. Ay, wait di pala. A las diyes y medya na.

Talaga? Bakit sa relos ko menos kinse pa lang! Pano naging ten thirty?

What time is it? Is it ten o’clock?

It’s ten o’clock. Oh no, wait, it’s not. It’s half-past ten.

Really? On my watch it’s only a quarter to ten! How can it be half-past?

The above exchange also illustrates another reason behind Filipino time: our timepieces are just not synchronized. In Philippine English, we have even invented our own way of describing a watch or clock that is literally ahead of its time:

advanced, adj. 3. Philippine English Informal (of a watch, clock, etc.) fast: My watch is advanced.

Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary for High School 

I was very surprised to find, on the very evening of my visit to the birthplace of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), that in this age of atomic clocks with accuracy to about one second in 20 million years, the Philippines still did not have a strictly enforced standard time. It was only this month when the President finally signed a law requiring all government offices and television and radio stations to synchronize their time with Philippine Standard Time (PST), which is eight hours ahead of GMT. Republic Act 10535 also designates PAGASA as the country’s official timekeeper, and prescribes stiff fines and penalties for private radio and television stations that fail to calibrate their timekeeping devices according to PST.

The new law is scheduled to take effect on June 1. Will this day mark the end of Filipino time?

Only time will tell.