'Stargate' crew brings hieroglyphics to life with special language

Last year, a confusion of tongues struck the set of Stargate, the intergalactic science-fiction adventure film that opens Friday.

The $55 million space epic stars James Spader as a specialist in linguistics and Jaye Davidson as Ra, an alien impersonating the sun god.

Most of the actors in Stargate - at least those playing modern descendants of ancient Egyptians who were exiled to a remote planet around 8000 B.C. - were required to speak their lines in the long-dead language of hieroglyphics.

And not just colloquial hieroglyphics, if there was such a thing. This language was supposed to have evolved over the millennia, on the planet
Abydos, without any outside linguistic influences.

To construct what viewers might call Ra-speak (and to design the hieroglyphs used on the vast set), the filmmakers enlisted Stuart Tyson Smith, an Egyptologist at the Institute of Archeology at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles.

The first question: How do you pronounce a hieroglyph?

"I made an educated guess based on a few things that made it into script," Mr. Smith says. "Very little is known about the vowels because they're not written down." He started with Coptic, an Afro-Asiatic liturgical language that is a direct descendant of ancient Egyptian.

Mr. Smith extrapolated backward to determine how a hieroglyphic language might have sounded. Then, by following likely trajectories for language development, he came up with Ra-speak, which has hints of North African and Middle Eastern tongues.

"Almost everyone did really well," Mr. Smith says of the cast, which had to utter such lines as Mr. Davidson's "Rrridiaouw woo oo rrri-ou!" ("There can only be one Ra!") or Mr. Spader's "Yimyu ma-yay naturru tee" ("Take a look at your gods!"). Mr. Smith gave the words masculine and feminine endings similar to those found in Arabic and Hebrew.

The Egyptologist served as speech coach, did phonetic translations and made tapes to help the cast members. Almost everyone in the cast except Kurt Russell, who plays a military officer, had to say a line or two in Ra.

Mili Avital, an Israeli actress who has the female lead, had an obvious advantage: She already spoke Hebrew and Arabic.

After two years of bluffing her way around New York, where she was trying to break into acting, she says, "I can pretend I really know what I'm talking about, even if I don't understand a word."

Others got only an E for effort. Mr. Davidson, who as Ra gets to wear gowns that would make Cher jealous, struggled hard but not so successfully to learn Ra. At one point, Mr. Smith was feeding him lines directly from a sound booth. Mr. Davidson ended up reading cue cards and having his voice electronically altered.

But it was not for lack of trying. Says Mr. Spader: "Everyone was obsessed with getting the language exactly right, but it hasn't been spoken in
forever. No one watching knows the difference."

Well, almost no one, says Mr. Smith. About six people in the world might know the difference, all of them his colleagues, for whose benefit he threw in one small joke. When Mr. Spader's character looks at a bad translation of hieroglyphics, he says, "You must have used Budge."

Mr. Smith describes the Egyptologist Ernest A. Wallis Budge as "something of a hack" and says his books were out of date even when they were first printed.

In the end, one line of Ra had to be replaced because it sounded too much like English.

When Mr. Spader's character awoke in a healing tomb, he was supposed to blurt out "I died?" in Ra. The line - "Yawa meton-i?" - sounded too much like "You want me tonight?" It was changed in postproduction.

© Stephanie Dolgoff, New York Times News Service, 27 October 1994 (Thank you, Susan!)