Private Lives

If you happen to be on the planet of Fithia, and one of its hairless, marsupial-like natives hops up to you and squeaks " Shi vum vai e," you should understand that those are fighting words. Unfortunately, you won't be able to do anything about it, since the Fithians' grammar is so complex that by the time you realize you are being compared to a pestilent rodent, your aggressor will be long gone.

Thankfully, this will never happen. That's because Fithia, and its strange language of Fith, exists only in the mind of Jeffrey Henning -- as do Karklak, Dublex, and 15 other languages he's invented. There are 40,000 people like Henning, raised on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, who create model languages that no one else speaks. The 34-year-old Henning runs a popular website for them. He is also co-founder of one of the fastest growing tech companies in New England, according to Deloitte & Touche.

That company, Perseus Development Corp., in Braintree, Mass., has 33 employees committed to living up to the PC Magazine award it won in 2000 for making the best web surveying product around. Henning wrote the software -- which, with services, sells for more than $50,000 to clients such as MasterCard or as a $495 standalone to smaller businesses -- on an office laptop that sits near a Chinese gong (it was a present). He wrote it in another sort of model language: Visual BASIC.

"It's no accident that so many programmers are into model languages," Henning says. "It's essentially the same thing. You have a small group of words, a limited syntax, and need to make new definitions." Henning knows 12 programming languages. The first one he learned was BASIC -- the Latin of programming -- on his Radio Shack TRS-80, which resembled a small portable TV. He realized he wanted to be a computer programmer. He was nine years old.

WORDSMITH OF THE WEB: From a small office laptop, Perseus co-founder Jeff Henning writes many model and programming languages -- none of which he speaks.

After studying computer science and linguistics at Arizona State, spending years in market research, and launching two failed start-ups, his dream remained the same: Could he combine his love of programming and market research into a thriving business? In 1993, he tried, founding Perseus with Richard Nadler. They struggled for three years until Henning wrote a program that could spit out a web survey quickly. It was a huge leap from the more time-consuming database products then offered. He was on to something. In 2000, business doubled. Companies like Intel and Microsoft signed up. Perseus had arrived.

So had his model language website, What had started as a newsletter in 1995 now logged 57,000 visitors annually (today it has 20,000 a month), who shared shoptalk (in English) and translated the Tower of Babel story into model languages. They created New English, a language of English words they think should exist. Henning's favorite is verbificate, the act of coining new words.

As a family man, Henning is always busy. He has four children, serves as a Cub master, and is treasurer of his Congregationalist church. His oldest son, Alex, has even invented his own alphabet.

Henning still has the file cards he wrote his first language on and the computer that blinked BASIC. His favorite language, Dublex, with roots from six natural languages, has more than 5,000 words, many contributed by LangMaker visitors. Henning doesn't speak any foreign languages, though. "I took some Spanish in high school," he says. "But learning a language is not as easy as it looks."

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Published on: May 1, 2003