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.