Theme: Indigenous Languages


The International Year of Indigenous Languages is a United Nations observance in 2019 that aims to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world, with an aim to establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.



We received 341 haiku by 128 authors from 32 countries.

The judge was Jim Kacian




The challenge of writing to a contest topic is often not simple, and, given that one’s entries are certain to be compared with many others in the same vein, a premium is placed on finding originality of approach and expression. Inevitably many poets arrive at the same place, and so here there was a plethora of poems illustrating the impossibility of communicating in any language, or else the similitude that exists between all of them. Our winners managed to rise above these compelling but obvious truths by showing the specifics through which our efforts to talk with one another, parallel with our contemporaries or vertically with our ancestors and progeny, met with success or failure.


Certain kinds of poems were inevitable with this topic. For example, several poets treated language as a mutually irreconcilable obstacle


nodding the shared misunderstanding

[Kristyn Blessing, Wisconsin, USA]


often with humorous overtones

after a vodka
I suddenly speak
very well Russian

[Cezar Florin Ciobica, Romania ]


Similarly, many treated language as a lost signifier, either forever gone

with him they bury
his whole culture

[Tomislav Sjekloća, Montenegro]


or the provenance of the few, tenuously retained

dad tells us
what the talking drum says —
new yam festival

[Anthony Itopa Obaro, Nigeria]


For some, the “old tongue” is an exercise rich in nostalgia (this slightly edited)

star-filled skies . . .
mother sings a lullaby
in Noongar

[Vanessa Proctor, Australia]


and for some it goes beyond the verbal

Native rug —
the language 
of several generations

[Zornitza Harizanova, Bulgaria ]


My top winners also created something more, and it is in this something more that the highest art is achieved — going beyond the topic and connecting it with other aspects of the human condition. It was difficult to “rank” these, and I think they should be treated as co-equal, even though a number is being assigned to them to accord with the expectations of the contest.


My honorable mentions include this charming piece of anthropomorphism


a blossoming tree
in bee language  

[Dejan Pavlinović, Croatia ]

and a clever abstraction


never to be repaid —
dry springs

[Srinivas S., India]


along with this intriguing connection 


my distant family
beyond my language
winter stars

[Ramesh Anand, India]


My third prize winner recognizes a most human moment


homecoming . . .
my accent thickens
among friends

[Shloka Shankar, India ]



It is natural to revert to our truest selves in such a situation. What is perhaps less common is to recognize that “I” have an accent — usually only “they” have them — and to notice one’s self sliding — willingly, easily — into it. Our friends make this possible, since we drop our defenses among them, and feel — at home.


Second prize goes to this poem that makes of language a sensory experience



how your native tongue
feels in my mouth

[Agnes Eva Savich, TX, USA]


There are few things that can give us the innate feel of another culture more than the way mouths must move to enunciate a language. Saudade is one of those words — this one from Brazilian Portuguese — that defies definition outside its culture, but which encapsulates an important and distinctive element of it, in this case a bittersweet nostalgia for something, real or imagined, that might never return. This poem suggests a lost love (and the double entendre of “tongue” supports this), and the way the word itself fits within the mouth is sufficient to bring the entire experience back upon the speaker of the poem.


My first prize manages to pull off a similar effect, but for an entire community


lost village site
she tells me the names
beneath the names

[Jacquie Pearce, Vancouver, Canada]


Language here is a palimpsest, an overlapping of layers which, once unpacked, allows us to discover a more complete sense of history. Names — of people, of places, of the gods — have been critical to all cultures, not only to differentiate them one from another, but to have actual contact and control over them. To know the name of the god of the enemy is to own the enemy. To know the secret name of the oracle is to unmask the oracle. So too it is with the names of where we live. Naming stories are among the oldest stories in every culture. Naming tells me where I am and how I fit.

No matter what we call the place where we now live, it was once called something else. Knowing this something else gives me an insight into who was here before, where they thought they were, perhaps who they thought they might be. It also often suggests what was important to them. All this is lost when those names are replaced. But when “she” restores them, they are unearthed, spoken back into being, and the full truth of the land and its history recovered. 

The author’s lovely phrasing — “the names/beneath the names” — and the appropriateness of the “teller” remaining nameless herself, makes this a memorable poem, and a worthy winner for a contest focused on indigenous language — that is, languages identified with a particular place.

— Jim Kacian

Winchester, Virginia, USA
February 2020