Telling the time would seem the most natural thing no matter where in the world we are. We all know we need to adjust our watches to the new time zone in a foreign country, but who knew that the way the time is told in other countries was different?
In English speaking countries, the 12-hour system with a.m. and p.m. is used in spoken and written communications, however in many European countries, such as France and Spain, it is much more common to use the 24-hour clock. In the West, time is measured in hours, half hours and quarter hours, dividing the clock up into 12 parts, one for each hour. In Germany, they adopt the same system, however when they say “Halb Sieben” (half seven), what they actually mean is not “half past seven” but “half way to seven”, what we would call half past six. In Southern Germany and Austria, they take this structure even further and say “Dreiviertel Sieben” which literally translates as “three quarters seven”, meaning “three quarters of the way to seven”, i.e. “6.45”.
If this wasn’t confusing enough, in the Middle East time is measured in hours, thirds and two thirds. So for westerners dividing an hour into quarters seems the most logical way, but for people in the Middle East saying “a third past 10”, meaning 10:20, is the norm.
In the Far East, in places such as Thailand, the time system moves even further away from what we are accustomed to. They divide the day into four blocks of six hours. The first block of their day starts at 7 a.m. which in Thai literally translates as “hour morning, therefore 8 a.m. is said as “two hour morning”, and so on and so forth. Each block uses a time phrase to differentiate between morning, afternoon, evening and night time, however for night time, they use the word “strike” or “hit”, coming from when a gong was struck every hour during the night.
African countries near the equator use a time system called “Swahili time”. The 12-hour clock is used, but instead of the cycle starting at 12 a.m., it starts at 6 a.m. This means that the first hour of the day in Swahili time is actually 7 a.m. in western time.
So, if you are making an appointment with a native speaker somewhere else in the world, make sure you know which time system you’re both using!