The “Schizophrenic” World of Philippine Measurements

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To a dayo (foreigner) staying in the Philippines for a lengthy period, managing any standard of measurement is tricky and confusing, whereas to us locals it just the way things are. Aside from using both the English (British Imperial) and Metric units of measures, there are also the local units; making everything confusing.

For length, Filipinos usually use inches and feet for small distances, such as measuring a table or a room. This is more noticeable when it comes to measuring the height of people. In fact, when buying at a fabric store, you can order textiles by the yard or by the meter. But when it comes to traveling and large scale construction, meters and kilometers are used. This includes measuring speed, which is kilometers-per-hour.

For weight and volume, Filipinos commonly use the metric kilogram and liter, especially for food. However, when it comes to liquids it becomes a little more tricky. For liquids used cooking, you can vinegar, cooking oil, soy sauce, and patis (fish sauce) in gallons and liters. While in purchasing paints or industrial oils, you can buy them in gallons, liters and pints.

When it comes to temperature, we are pretty much consistent with the use of Celsius.

Then there are the other traditional measurements, such as the chimanta, dakot, gatang and kaban for the weight of agricultural products. And there are the measurements of length, based on the human body, such as the dangkal as the between a spread hand’s edge of the thumb to the edge of the pinkie, the bisig as an arm’s length, and talampakan as a foot’s length. There is also a dipa, which is a traditional measure for water depth.

Although the metric system was first conceived in France in 1799 as a means to standardize measurements in the country and its territories, it later version was introduced to the Philippines in 1860. During that period, both traditional and Spanish era measurements were in use throughout the archipelago. Among the Spanish measurements applied were the pulgadas and vara for length area, the libras and quintal for weight, and the locally introduced quiñón for land area.

When the Americans took the Philippines from Spain, in 1898, they introduced the English system. Bassed on the British Imperial system that was first established in 1824, the American variation was systematize in 1893. So by the early 20th century, Filipino, Spanish and American measurements were used all over the country. So by the 1930s, and attempt to systematize measurements were enforced, with the American system become the official measurements of the government.

In the 1960s, the Philippine government adopted the metric system, to make international trade with other countries much easier. However, in local commerce and education, the use of the English system was still prevalent. In fact, in the 1970s, one could still buy fuel by the gallon, drive in miles-per-hour, buy at the market by the pound, and drink a bottle of cola by the ounce.

In 1970, President Ferdinand Marcos ordered that the metric system become the standard in schools and in commerce, so the Ministry of Education introduced a song to be sung in the schools, for the children to learn the metric system:

It’s easy to change from English to Metric
The secret is fun if you know it
So let’s all convert from English to Metric
Let’s do it, and share it, and show it.

Just multiply inches by 2.54 and you will get centimeters
The feet multiplied by .305 will give you equivalent meters
Just multiply pounds by .45 and you’ll get kilograms it’s true
The gallons by 3.79 will turn into liters for you!

Subtract 32 from degrees Fahrenheit
The result keep it in mind, why?
For you to multiply that with 5 over 9
And you’ll get Celsius just fine

The yards and the miles are things of the past
Use meters, and go kilometers
So out with the English, we’re modern at last
The System of Metric is (2X)
The System of Metric is better!

So by the 1980s, gas stations converted their machines to liters, and thousands of scales in kilograms and thermometers in Celsius were imported to the Philippines. Local school supply companies produced rulers and other measuring instruments with both inches and centimeters, to make the conversion easier.

After 40 years of using the metric system, why is the English system still popular? The first reason was that many local food and industrial liquid producing companies could not easily purchase the new machines that would make bottles and cans in the metric system. So they would just buy a few machines, and maintained their old gallon machines. This goes for lumber companies, whose machines still produce the standard 4X8 feet plywood boards, as well as the wooden ½ X1, 1X1, 1 ½ X2, 2X2, 2X3, and 2X4 inch beams.

The second reason is that the Filipino likes to think in smaller numbers and fractions, rather than in larger numbers with integers (decimals). For the Filipino, it’s more practical to drink an 8 ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, over having 235.588 milliliters of Pepsi. It’s easier to understand that Lebron James is 6’6” feet in height, rather than saying that he’s 2.03 meters tall. And buying a pint of acrylic paint is just the right amount, compared to .473176 liters. And it is simpler to cook with a teaspoon and a cup, instead of thinking with milligrams.

Thirdly, the Filipino sees the use of pounds, inches and feet as a more intimate means of relating to measuring humans, whereas the use of the metric system seems more clinical.

And finally, the last reason why it is hard for Filipinos to forego the English system is that it is very hard to write in a poetic language in the Metric system. You can sing about being “Miles away,” but will fumble in saying “I will walk a kilometer for a Camel.” You can demand for a “Pound of Flesh,” but not eat a “Kilogram Cake.” You can imagine a person “Inching closer,” and not “Slowing centimetering to his destination.”

So next time you watch a Filipino talking in different measurements, remember that we are not schizophrenic, we’re just being practical.

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