Saying it Right: Gulets

Goulette/Goélette (Fr.): schooner


At a time like this, when Turkey is in such turmoil, there seems precious little point in sweating the small stuff.   Like pronunciation.

Except that, unlike the assassinations and the massacres, and the imprisonment by a shamefully craven judiciary of every dissenting voice, however original and distinguished, we may at least be able to do something about pronunciation.

Like sorting it.  For once and for all.

I care that words sound as they should, especially the ones closest to my heart.  One such Turkish word is gulet.  I have spent some of my happiest days on gulets, the traditional timber sea boats of southwest Anatolia, but these would have been happier still without the interminable talk of ‘gullets’ (like mullets) or ‘gulays’ (to rhyme, at a pinch, with blue haze).

Old hands will know that the first rule when boarding a gulet is to take one’s shoes off.  The point seems two-fold: to echo the age-old custom generally observed in Turkish homes, and also to protect the decks.  Which is fine, but it doesn’t do anything for my outraged ears. Which is why I’d like to insert another rule in front of this. Now I’ve no wish to jeopardise the warm welcomes for which gulet crews are renowned, but I do think there’s something to be said for posting an officious person, with clipboard, at the foot of the gangplank to check that guests can at least pronounce the thing they’ll shortly be calling home (much in the same way that the Ellis Island, NY immigration officers once inspected new arrivals for unwelcome contagions like TB) before allowing them on-board.  Heaven knows, we could even hand out congratulatory certificates.

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman (Arabic-style) script in the 1920s, he replaced it with a Roman-style alphabet which was adapted to provide a near-total phonetic logic; that explains all the odd-looking diacriticals – the cedillas, and especially the umlauts which convey the unfamiliar and off-centred vowel sounds Turks tend to make.  The problem is that while this logic may not trouble the locals, it’s anything but apparent to the rest of us.  There’s a reductive quality to Turkish words that makes many of them appear bewildering, or plain ugly.

Gulet, to be clear, is the phonetic rendering of the French word goulette or goélette – and doesn’t that already look so much lovelier?  Written like that, we instantly get the salt spray and the sunshine, and that lovely long bowsprit.  There’s a rich and wonderful etymology at play here as the word is also closely connected to other variants – the Spanish goleta, the Italian goletta or the Portuguese galeota – and, more distantly, to the English galley.  And galleon.

This originally Romance-language term no doubt found its way into Turkish as a consequence of the mercantile influence Europeans, especially the French and Italians, traditionally had in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant.    So it is that the port for Ephesus, Kuşadası (note the cedilla and the undotted ı) was until the 19th century known as Scala Nuova, or New Quay in Italian.  Which further explains where the Turkish word for quay, iskele, comes from.

But it’s the words of the French – for centuries the Ottomans’ most favoured trading partner, not to mention their main creditor – which have the most to offer linguistically-minded visitors.   The more thinly disguised of these like otogar (autogare; bus station) and bilet (billet; ticket) are a sinch.  But one of the many joys of a protracted acquaintance with Turkey, and Turkish, is identifying less obviously recognisable ones.  Let’s start with this example which I spotted last summer in Kars, eastern Turkey; what’s this café called?

The answer is, of course, sympathie, sympathy in English, though the French word’s richer resonance means it better translates as something like ‘Friendship Café’.

Here are ten more, some extremely testing and one or two verging on the obselete, to get your teeth into:










and aksesuar.

The first respondent to email me all ten correct answers, with both the French rendering and the English translation, gets a free bottle of reasonably good wine.  Turkish, of course, which tastes best on the deck of a gulet, ideally on one of the gulet tours I’m leading this summer, though I’m afraid you’ll have to book that bit…

Which brings me back to gulets and why I’m so fond of them.  I love their honorable working origins as sponge-diving boats or citrus fruit freighters, and I love the way the way this heritage is expressed in the varnished timbers, in that handsome sprit and galleon-style stern and in the crews, often the sons and grandsons of seafaring men.  I also love the way that southwest Turkey’s topography – all those indents, coves, headlands and islets, like a heated-up Hebrides – means the gulet can sidestep harbours or soulless marinas to drop anchor, and loop a stern line, where and when the captain sees fit.  And sometimes in the very shadow of the classical sites which litter this myth-haunted shore.


I also love the small groups – no more than ten – and the like-minded souls that gulets attract; companionable types in thrall to the classical world and to rural Anatolian life, to good food and some light learning, night skies and night caps.

The only stipulation is that they can pronounce ‘gulet’.


For more on my summer 2017 gulet tours, please visit