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?

Using the OED to trace the origins of the Philippine English lexicon


With Rajend Mesthrie

In mid-June I found myself celebrating Independence Day by reading a paper on Philippine English at the Changing English: Contacts and Variation conference at the University of Helsinki in Finland. In the photo above, I am with South African linguist Rajend Mesthrie, one of the plenary speakers of the conference. We had just gotten off the ferry at Suomenlinna, the breathtaking island venue of the conference dinner.


Helsinki sunset from the Suomenlinna ferry

It was nice to meet Rajend that day, as I was about to quote him extensively in the presentation I was to give the next morning (which he was kind enough to attend). in an article he published in 2003, he observed that much research in World Englishes was based on comparisons between contemporary World English corpora and either a British or American corpus. This observation definitely applies to lexical studies on Philippine English: linguists who wish to find out if a word is indeed a Philippine English word usually consult a digitally stored collection of texts written by Filipino authors, and a similar compilation of texts written in the British or American standard. If the word appears in the former and not in the latter, this is taken as evidence that the word is a Filipino coinage or meaning extension. However, Rajend Mesthrie’s article questions whether contemporary UK/US English is always the relevant variety for making such comparisons.

In the same article, Rajend cited a study by a another linguist named Jim Davy, who used the Oxford English Dictionary to show that several lexical and grammatical features of African English actually have a long history in British English. This inspired me look at the OED not only as an object of research but also as a data source for enriching my study of the Philippine English lexicon. And indeed, by following Jim Davy’s methodology I found several words that are widely considered to be uniquely or originally Filipino but are in the OED with totally different origins than I expected. The following are just ten of the examples that I gave in my talk:

1. air-con. Apart from being just Filipino, this abbreviation of air conditioning is also quite British. It dates back to the 70s and is used in British contexts until today, both as a noun and an adjective.

air-con, n. and adj. orig. Brit.

A. n. = air conditioning n.

1970 Guardian 12 Dec. 11/3 Small hotels..offer..air con and shower attached for £3.15. 1987 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 12 July (Weekend Suppl.) 12/7 The ‘air-con’ and the rear toilet make the nine-hour trip tolerably comfortable, though not up to Western tourist standards. 1999 T. Parsons Man & Boy (2000) xi. 97, I..saw her sitting..in front of the TV in some little apartment, the air-con turned up to full blast. 2006 Independent on Sunday (Nexis) 20 Aug. 49 More importantly, Teslas come fully equipped with air con and heated seats.

B. adj. = air-conditioned adj.

1983 Financial Times (Nexis) 17 Sept. i. 12 All ‘air-con’ berths in first class were booked. 2004 Farang May 63/4 There’s also an air-con ‘microbus’ service.

New entry from OED Third Edition, added March 2008

2. awardee. This word is originally American, with quotations dating back to 1873, appearing in American publications in succeeding decades until as recently as 2005.

awardee, n. orig. U.S.

The recipient of an award; a person to whom a grant or scholarship is given.

1873 Athens (Ohio) Messenger 3 July 3/1 The first premium for carriage horses was also donated by the awardee, Mr James D. Brown, to the Society. 1901 Columbia Law Rev. 1 213 The Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to distribute..certificates..to awardees showing the proportions to which they were entitled. 1959 Odessa (Texas) American 7 June 12/3 The awardees were selected from 150 applicants on the basis of significance of their projects. 1989 Times 21 Oct. 11/4 The television presentation of the British Fashion Awards showed us one of the awardees..offering to shake hands with her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales with his other hand stuck in his trousers pocket. 2005 Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.) (Nexis) 16 Nov. 1 b, In past festivals, awardees have been among Hollywood’s biggest names.

New entry from OED Third Edition, added June 2006

3. ballpen. This shortened form of ballpoint pen is in the OED as a compound of ball. Ball entered the dictionary in 1885, three years before the first patent for a ballpoint pen was first issued, so this compound was obviously added to the entry later. The earliest quotation is 1946, and there is evidence as recent as 2001.

ball, n.1


ball pen n. = ball-point pen n.

1946 Esquire Nov. 155 Biro who introduced the first ball-pen presents..a sensational new invention. 1958 Times 2 June p. vi/3 Gas is used..in the manufacture of familiar articles such as ball pens, aircraft engines, [etc.]. 2001 French Rev. 5 892 The ball pen and pencil remain the vehicle for note- taking.

4. blowout. The Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School by Bautista and Butler defines this noun as a treat, such as a dinner at a restaurant, given for a number of friends or colleagues in celebration of an event such as gaining promotion or closing a deal. It can be seen that sense number 2 of blowout in the OED is very close to the Philippine meaning, and it dates back to 1823, to a work by Sir Walter Scott.

blow-out, n.

2. A dinner, supper, or other entertainment for which an abundant supply of food and drink is provided or at which it is consumed; a ‘feast’ or ‘feed’. colloq.

1823 Scott St. Ronan’s Well III. vii. 193 ‘She sent me a card for her blow-out,’ said Mowbray; ‘and so I am resolved to go.’ 1840 R. H. Dana Two Years before Mast xxvi. 87 They had a grand blow-out, and..drank in the forecastle, a barrel of gin. 1856 F. E. Paget Owlet of Owlstone Edge 174 Such a jolly blow-out as there was when the Bishop was here. 1930 R. Lehmann Note in Music vii. 264 Have a nice blowout and a good sleep afterwards. 1966 ‘J. Hackston’ Father clears Out 172 Saint’s menu in between such blood- building blowouts was rabbit, with pollard as a savoury.

Entry from 1933 Supplement to the OED, not fully updated

5. brown-out. As I was growing up I was made to believe that what Americans called black-out, we Filipinos call brown-out, since we originally extended the word’s meaning of “a drop in voltage” to “a power outage”. OED evidence proves that that meaning extension also happened in US and Australian English, starting in wartime 1940s, when such power outages were common.

brown-out, n.

Chiefly Austral. and N. Amer.

A partial black-out. Also transf. and fig.

1942 in Amer. Speech (1945) 20 143/1 Brown-out..used in Australia to denote semidarkening a city as distinguished from the complete darkening of a blackout. 1943 Amer. Speech (1944) 19 149/1 The suggested conservation measures for electricity involve a national brownout, the extinguishing of all ornamental and display lighting and signs after 10 p.m. 1950  N.Y. Herald 18 Feb., New York Brownout is Ordered as Coal Dwindles. 1955  Times 4 May 10/4 The new ‘brown-out’ on information in Washington. 1969  Daily Colonist (Victoria, Brit. Columbia) 6 Dec. 23/1 Premier Bennett..was asked why the government found it necessary to route the transmission [line] through the park. He said:..‘It is to prevent brown outs.’

Entry from 1972 Supplement to the OED, not fully updated

6. cockfighter. Filipinos love cockfighting but according to the OED, we were not the first ones to give a name to the person who is into the sport. A certain N. Bailey used the word cockfighter as early as 1721, and the word has been in the dictionary since 1891.

cockfighter, n.

a. One who promotes the sport of cock-fighting; = cocker n.2 2.

1721 N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. at Clear Walk, With Cock-fighters. 1789 W. Cowper (title) , The Cock-fighter’s garland. 1884 T. H. Gore in Law Times 8 Nov. 28/2 The licensing justices..refused to renew a licence to a cockfighter.

b. cock fighter = chief or champion fighter: see cock n.1 Compounds 2.

Entry from OED First Edition (1891), not fully updated

7. comfort room. This word is a typically Philippine English term for restroom, frequently abbreviated to CR. The OED entry for comfort includes a reference to an early 20th century American genteelism for a public lavatory: comfort station or comfort room. These compounds were of widespread use during the early years of the American occupation of the Philippines and gives an indication of when the term may have been picked up by Filipinos. The last quotation is from 1967, but the entry is not updated. I looked up the expression in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), and a large majority of occurrences is of Philippine origin. Even the examples marked Indian or American or British because of their URL were actually written by Filipinos. So comfort room seems like a good example of an archaic usage in American English preserved in contemporary Philippine English.

comfort, n.


Comb., as comfort-killing, comfort-seeking adjs. comfort station n. U.S. Genteelism a public lavatory.

[1910 Aurora (Illinois) Daily Beacon 8 Sept. 6/1 A public comfort room..would pay the city of Aurora a profit every year.] 1923 Glass (Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.) 167 (heading) Public comfort stations.  1931 T. Wilder Long Christmas Dinner 121 Ma, where is the next comfort-station. 1947 W. H. Auden Age of Anxiety (1948) ii. 53 Ingenious George reached his journey’s end Killed by a cop in a comfort station. 1957 D. Karp Leave me Alone xii. 165 Snatching Jimmy’s hand she trudged across the sand with him to the comfort station. 1967 R. Shaw Man in Glass Booth xvii. 152 ‘Wash-room,’ said the old man. ‘Comfort station.’

Entry from OED First Edition (1891), not fully updated

8. jubilarian. This word is quite archaic in general English, although the OED does not label it as such, since the entry has not yet been revised. It dates back to 1782.

jubilarian, n.

One who celebrates his or her jubilee; spec. in R.C. Church, a priest, monk, or nun who has been such for fifty years.

1782 in A. Mary Sharp Hist. Ufton Court (1892) 233 May 13th 1782 died age 79 the Rev. F. Saward Madew, O.S.F. a jubilarian, many years missionary at Ufton Court. 1882 H. Foley Rec. Eng. Prov. S.J. VII. 106 A jubilarian in religion, in the priesthood and in the mission. 1890 Catholic News 3 May 7/3 We have now three ‘jubilarians’ who have completed 50 years and over as professed nuns.

Entry from OED First Edition (1901), not fully updated

9. province. Researchers on Philippine English agree that the use of this word to mean any place outside of Manila is a meaning adaptation specific to Philippine usage, and explain that such a usage is out of context in the US, where a political boundary called province does not exist. The usage is also linked to the city-province dichotomy ingrained in Manila-centric Philippine culture. But it is obvious from the history of the word as narrated by the OED quotations that this very sense of “a place outside a country’s capital” is a meaning that has been in the English language since the 17th century. The OED has evidence of the sense for every century from then on until 1991.

province, n.

6. In pl. Chiefly with the. The parts of a country outside the capital or chief seat of government. Sometimes with negative connotations of a lack of culture or sophistication. Cf. provincial adj. 6.

1638 R. Baker tr. J. L. G. de Balzac New Epist. III. 31 In this worke..you shall finde..this sweete ayre of the wide world, and these dainties of the spirit, which are not common in our Provinces [Fr. nos Provinces]. 1789 Ann. Agric. 11 293 All the animation, vigour, life, and energy of luxury, consumption, and industry, which flow with a full tide through this kingdom, wherever there is a free communication between the capital and the provinces. a1845 S. Smith Elem. Sketches Moral Philos. (1850) xii. 168 Those opinions go down by the mail-coach, to regulate all matters of taste for the provinces. 1874 L. Stephen Hours in Libr. 1st Ser. vi. 341 The provinces differ from Paris in the nature of the social warfare. 1882 C. Pebody Eng. Journalism xii. 88 In the provinces, as in London, Liberal journalists outnumber the Conservatives. 1919 J. Reed Ten Days that shook World i. 13 Young ladies from the provinces came up to the capital to learn French. 1970 J. G. Farrell Troubles i. 118 The Major wouldn’t be interested in all this dull tattle from the provinces since he was in London at the very centre of things. 1991 Investors Chron. 26 July 65/3 Supposedly loyal workers were seduced and suddenly upped and offed to the new megafirms which were mushrooming both in the City and the provinces.

Entry from OED First Edition, updated September 2007

10. studentry. The use of this word to refer to a body of students has been an OED entry since 1919, and its first quotation dates back to 1830. It is now quite rare in English in general, but not as much as in Philippine English. More than a coinage, I would classify this as a preservation of a meaning that has died out in other varieties of English.

studentry, n. rare.

Students collectively; a body of students.

1830 W. Taylor Hist. Surv. German Poetry III. 170 Here was..a considerable population to observe, and a manlier studentry to mingle with: and Schiller began to question many of his former points of view. 1853 C. Kingsley Hypatia II. i. 4 The huge broad blade, at the ominous brown stains of which the studentry recoiled.

Entry from OED First Edition (1919), not fully updated

These examples show the importance of taking historical data into account in the study of the features not only of Philippine English but also of other World Englishes. However, this kind of information into World English research is complicated by the comparatively short publishing history of most postcolonial varieties of English. The limited evidence available can be supplemented by sources usually consulted by historians rather than linguists: letters, diaries, archival materials, etc. For the study of lexis, the Oxford English Dictionary can be a particularly valuable resource.

Philippine English vocabulary in the latest issue of Business World’s High Life magazine

Philippine English vocabulary in the latest issue of Business World's High Life magazine

On page 38 of the June-July issue of Business World’s High Life Magazine is my article on the development of the Philippine English lexicon. Be sure to grab a copy if you’re in the Philippines!

Special thanks to High Life Associate Editor Sam Marcelo.

I am in this month’s issue of Mosaic

I am in this month's issue of Mosaic

In the latest issue of Mosaic, Oxford University Press’ inhouse magazine, I talk about a typical day working on Philippine English at Oxford University and Oxford Dictionaries, for me the best places in the world for language research. If you read this and think, “Sounds like a perfect day to me!”, you might want to consider a career in lexicography. Or if you think, “Philippine English! Sounds fascinating!”, you might want to know more about our own variety of English and in its place in the wider English-speaking world. In either case, please feel free to contact me for any questions or comments.

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.

What can the first Filipino novel tell us about Tagalog, Spanish and English vocabulary?

Ninay Book Cover

Nine years ago I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, the novel considered to be the first to ever be written by a Filipino. I looked at certain characteristics of the novel and argued that it owed a lot to a Spanish literary trend called costumbrismo, which flourished in Spain in the 19th century. Costumbrista literature, which counts such authors as Serafín Estébanez Calderón, Ramón de Mesonero Romanos and Mariano José de Larra among its leading figures, is characterized by satiric, moralizing works full of folkloric detail.

Reading Nínay was not an altogether pleasant experience. Many critics consider the novel a failure as a literary work, and I am inclined to agree with them. This is no Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo: the plot is so convoluted and preposterous it can rival any of our current primetime teleseryes, and its author gave more attention to painting local color than to fleshing out its characters, which were reduced to stereotypes.

In many ways, Nínay can be seen as a European novel. Not only does it follow Spanish costumbrista models, it was written and published in Madrid, in the Spanish language. But Nínay can also be viewed as a quintessentially Filipino novel. It was written by a Filipino (the writer, politician and notorious balimbing Pedro Alejandro Paterno); it has Filipino characters in Filipino settings; it has extensive, minutely detailed, loving descriptions of Filipino places, plants, animals, dress, food, art, language and customs. It has several long footnotes on various aspects of local life, and quotes from 16th to 18th century works on the Philippines, in Spanish and French. It even includes, as an appendix, a lengthy essay on Philippine pre-Hispanic civilization.

Nínay‘s weak, soap-operatic story merely serves as framework for the description of Philippine life and culture of the period. The novel is an exaltation of indigenous traditions, and has the dual objective of documenting native customs threatened by great social change, and of correcting distorted perceptions of the Philippines as an uncivilized, culturally backward colony in the tropics. These objectives are shared by Spanish costumbrista writers, who also lived during a time of social upheaval in Spain, and who saw their country viewed by the rest of the world principally through existing Spanish stereotypes.

I enjoyed writing the thesis more than reading the novel, and for my efforts I got my first journal publication (which is available here), and a shiny medal on graduation day that made me think for the first time that this research thing was something I could actually do.

Years later, I did get into research, but in language and not literature. My main working language shifted back to English from Spanish. It really seemed that I had closed the book on the study of Filhispanic literature, both literally and figuratively. That was what I thought, until I got an invitation to give a paper at the inaugural colloquium of a new research network in Oxford, Translations in Transnational Contexts, which involved scholars working in different aspects of translation that crossed national, geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to revisit my old friend Nínay, whose namesake novel is a prime example of transnational literature. This time, I was going to look at the novel from a lexical perspective, and see how translating concepts from one culture to another culture’s language aids processes of word formation.

Searching the novel for lexical riches proved to be more rewarding than looking for its literary value. From the very first chapter, Nínay gave me valuable insight on three different kinds of vocabulary. First, there are Spanish words that have made it into the Tagalog lexicon. We all know that a large percentage of Tagalog words (some even say up to 75%) are of Spanish origin, and several of them crop up in the first Filipino novel.

And then there are the Tagalog words that have made it into Spanish vocabulary. We get very excited when we see words of Filipino origin in famous English dictionaries such as the OED and Websters, but what we are less aware of is the fact that the Philippines had made its mark on another language and another dictionary long before any of these English dictionaries even existed: the Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española (DRAE). Nínay has a number of words of Tagalog origin that are documented in the DRAE, several of which Paterno himself checked against the 12th edition of 1884 (the first edition came out in 1780).

Dicc RAE 1780

As can be expected, there are the usual borrowings of flora and fauna terms (jusi, nipa, sampaguita, santol, etc.), but there are also some very surprising entries:

1. m. Filip. huracán (‖ viento a modo de torbellino).

(De or. tagalo).
1. adj. Filip. niño (‖ que está en la niñez).
2. m. Filip. Criado joven.

1. m. Filip. Fideo hecho de harina de arroz.

(Del tagalo salakót).
1. m. Sombrero usado en Filipinas y otros países cálidos, en forma de medio elipsoide o de casquete esférico, a veces ceñido a la cabeza con un aro distante de los bordes para dejar circular el aire, y hecho de un tejido de tiras de caña, o de otras materias.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

And my favorite:
1. m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Paterno even uses the verb tabear:

Por varios sitios , á la sombra de los cañaverales, vense grupos juguetones de dalagas de mórbidas formas, sumergiéndose en las ondas, ya levantando espumas con sus pies al nadar, ya formando cascadas al tabearse…

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

This is accompanied by an explanatory footnote on the same page:

Tabear. Verter agua sobre la cabeza con el tabo.
Tabo, m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco. (Dic. de la Acad. Esp., 1884.)

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

And then there is this word, which originated from a Spanish word, was Tagalized, and then made its way back into Spanish:

(Der. tagalo de batea).
1. m. Filip. Especie de terraza o balcón de madera o bambú, sin techo, situado en la trasera de las casas, donde se guardan los útiles de lavar.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

I also noticed some Spanish words that have undergone semantic change and taken on a new meaning in the Philippines.

Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Que abraza.
Filipino meaning:
3. m. Especie de almohada de forma cilíndrica que se usa en Filipinas para dormir con mayor comodidad, y que protege tanto del calor como del frío según la postura que el cuerpo adopte al abrazarse a ella.

(Del part. de caer).
Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Desfallecido, amilanado.
Filipino meaning:
19. f. Filip. p. us. Galería interior de las casas de Manila.

Common Spanish meanings:
1. f. Asiento de madera, sin respaldo y a modo de mesa baja.
2. f. Conjunto de entidades que tienen por objeto básico facilitar la financiación de las distintas actividades económicas.
Filipino meaning:
7. f. Embarcación pequeña usada en Filipinas.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Finally and more fascinatingly, Nínay also includes Tagalog words that have made into English vocabulary through Spanish. The examples I give here are still used in contemporary Philippine English and are in fact included in the OED:

casco, n.
Etymology: < Spanish casco hull, hulk.
b. A kind of boat used at Manila in lading and unlading ships.

jusi, n.
Pronunciation: /ˈhuːsiː/
Forms: Also husi, jussi.
Etymology: < Spanish jusi, < Tagalog husi.
A delicate fibrous fabric woven in the Philippine Islands.
1851 Illustr. Catal. Great Exhib. iv. 1344/1 Piece of ‘jusi’, and a shawl of ‘jusi’.

sampaguita, n.
Pronunciation: /sæmpəˈɡiːtə/
Etymology: < Filipino Spanish sampaguita, diminutive of Tagalog sampaga Arabian jasmine.
A local name in the Philippines for the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac; the flowers of this tree.
1902 Encycl. Brit. XXXI. 667/1 Valuable essential oils are obtained from the flowers of the ilangilang, sampaguita, and champaca.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Nínay is particularly interesting for lexical research because of the level of detail the author offers about many of the local terms he employs. This wealth of information not only gives a clear indication of the exact meaning of words, but can also help in dating reciprocal borrowings between Spanish, Tagalog and Philippine English.

Most research now on Filhispanic literature is done from a literary perspective, but we see now that it can also be useful for lexical investigations. In the future, it would be interesting to look at the Tagalog and English translations of Nínay (which came out in 1906 and 1907, respectively) to see how the novel’s depictions of local culture and traditions have been rendered in two such disparate languages. And this also makes me wonder: what can Rizal tell us about the evolution of our vocabulary? How about the other Propagandists? And how about the writers of the Golden Age of Filhispanic Literature: Claro M. Recto, Jesús Balmori, Cecilio Apóstol, Evangelina Guerrero?

This experience also made me realize the value of interdisciplinary research networks. By participating in this colloquium, I learned about, among many other things, the translation of Franco-British military medicine in the 18th century, transcultural architecture in Goa, the politics of translation in Napoleonic France, the translation of Spanish Golden Age Drama into English: topics that I would not have known anything about in my little applied linguistics bubble. It also made me consider my own work from a point of view that I had thought irrelevant, and in so doing led me down a promising new research path.

What is the OED and why do we want Philippine English to be in it?


Last weekend I went to the Oxford University Press bookshop on Oxford’s High Street for the first time. The first thing I saw as I entered the shop was the dictionary section, which was right by the door on the left-hand side. I’d never seen so many Oxford dictionaries together in one place, and at that moment I was struck by the sheer number of them. Most of them had the distinctive blue color scheme, but they came in all shapes and sizes and catered for a wide variety of needs: there were huge hardbound volumes as well as handy paperback editions; there were shorter, concise, compact, little, mini, pocket versions; there were dictionaries for children, for students, for language learners; there were thesauri, dictionaries of usage, dictionaries of regional varieties, terminological dictionaries on a huge range of subjects; there were bilingual dictionaries for languages from Italian and Russian to Chinese and Swahili.

But high up on a top shelf were all twenty handsome, hardbound volumes of the latest print edition of the mother of them all, the Oxford English Dictionary, which everybody calls by its acronym, OED.

So what is the OED? What makes it different from all the other dictionaries published by OUP? And what’s so special about it that I’m dedicating years of my life to studying how Philippine English is represented in it, and trying to get more Philippine words and senses into it?

The main difference between the OED and most other Oxford dictionaries is that it is a historical dictionary, meaning that it is not only concerned with English as it is written and spoken today, but rather with the whole history of the language. This also means that unlike dictionaries of current English, the OED includes all core words and meanings in English, even those that are rare, archaic, historical, obsolete and technical. Meanings are listed in chronological order, from the earliest evidence of usage to the most recent. Once a word gets into the OED, it cannot be taken out: it becomes part of the historical record of the language. This makes the OED the ideal resource for studying the origin and development of thousands of English words.

A feature that sets the OED apart from the dictionaries that came before it is that it is based on evidence of actual usage. The 600,000 words in the dictionary are illustrated by around three million quotations taken from a wide variety of sources, from classic literature to newspapers, magazines and cookery books. Most of this massive amount of evidence were contributions from an enthusiastic public, volunteer readers who sent to Oxford masses and masses of quotation slips with interesting examples of how words are used.

Given the scope of its ambition, it is not at all surprising that the first edition of the OED took decades to complete. The dictionary was first conceived in the 1850s, years before our national hero, Jose Rizal, was born. It was the Victorian era in England; in the Philippines, we were still under Spanish rule. Spanish was then the language of prestige, and Filipinos of the period had no idea that in a few decades’ time we would be speaking and writing another European language, one that would be brought to our shores by a nascent world power in the Americas. It wasn’t until 1884 when the first fascicle, or installment, of the OED (then known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles), saw print. In 1898, the year the Philippines declared independence from Spain, OUP released two fascicles of the dictionary, containing words in the range Franklaw-germanizing, and the range H-hod. Thirty more years later, in 1928, the complete first edition was finally published. George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, was on the throne in England; in the Philippines, we were under the authority of the US Bureau of Insular Affairs, and Filipino authors such as Paz Marquez Benitez and Jose Garcia Villa had just begun writing literary works in English.

Work on the OED did not cease with the completion of the first edition. In the decades that followed, supplements and additions to the dictionary were produced. The second edition of the OED, whose set of twenty volumes I so admired at the OUP bookshop, was released in 1989. It was the early years of the first Aquino administration, and I was five years old.

Now in its third edition, the OED continues to evolve and change, just like the language that it chronicles. Just as English is a living language, the OED is a living dictionary, one that is always ready to embrace the opportunities offered by modern technology. The digitalization of the OED began in the 1980s, culminating with the release of the OED CD-ROM in 1992, and finally, with the pioneering launch of OED Online in 2000. And it is not just the dictionary’s method of delivery that is keeping up with the changing times. The OED is currently undergoing its first root and branch revision since it was first published, and the results of this huge scholarly endeavor, the biggest humanities project in the world, is made available every quarter in OED Online. And as the OED updates its existing entries, it continues to add an endless stream of new words and senses.

There is no doubt that the OED is a monumental work of scholarship. But why exactly is it important for Philippine English to be a part of it? One reason is that for the OED to remain current and relevant, it has to acknowledge the changes that the English-speaking world has undergone since the OED was first proposed in the 1850s. English has gone beyond the countries where it is spoken as the sole native language, and has spread to many different parts of the globe where it is used for intra- and international communication along with a number of other local languages. As a dictionary that considers itself to be the ultimate historical record of the English language, the OED needs to, and is keen to, include more and more words from these World Englishes. Philippine English is just one of these vibrant new varieties of the language that make English a truly global tongue.

Another reason is that the addition of Philippine vocabulary items to such an esteemed lexicographical work such as the OED can aid in the legitimization of Philippine English as a variety in its own right. The inclusion of Philippine English words in the OED is an acknowledgment that this particular variety is as worthy of serious linguistic scholarship as older, more established varieties such as British and American English. Becoming part of the OED is a recognition of the role that Philippine English plays in the evolution of the language. Such recognition may also lead to the realization among Filipinos that the liberties that we take with English are not aberrations, but rather linguistic innovations that reflect our own cultural experience and contribute to the richness and diversity of English.