How The World Got Neapolitan Ice Cream

This spumoni day, we explain how Neapolitan ice cream came to exist.

Chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla? Or maybe you’d prefer cherry, pistachio, and vanilla instead? When it comes to ice cream, everyone has their own preferences. This is particularly true in Italy, where food is so closely tied to culture that several dishes, including spumoni, the ice cream dish our modern-day Neapolitan ice cream is based on, are all designed to represent the Italian flag.

It’s true! Spumoni (which comes from the Italian word spuma, meaning ‘foam’), a type of Italian gelato that originated in Naples, was traditionally made up of three flavours with a fruit and nut layer in between. The three flavours were cherry, pistachio, and either chocolate or vanilla, with cherry bits in the fruit and nut layer. This red, green, and white—if you get vanilla—colour combination is seen in several different dishes in and around Naples today, which makes it particularly interesting that so many people there speak the local minority language, Neapolitan, as well as Standard Italian.

Neapolitan (the language, not the ice cream!) is spoken by around eight million people who live in or around the city. It evolved in a similar way to Italian, in that it came from Latin, which means Italian speakers can, to an extent, understand people speaking Neapolitan, though there are some major differences in both grammar and pronunciation. Sadly, Neapolitan has no standardised form for writing and is not taught in schools, so although it has a relatively high number of speakers right now, there are fears that because of the widespread use of Standard Italian, this number will begin to decline. 

A similar change has already been seen in the US. Many of the Italian immigrants who went to the US and South America in the 19th and 20th centuries were from south Italy, meaning that there are Neapolitan speakers in the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. In the US in particular, Neapolitan has had a lot of contact with English, which has already had an impact—the Neapolitan spoken in the US is considered very different to that still spoken in Naples today! 

All of which brings us back to the ice cream. Much like the Neapolitan language, spumoni was carried across with those southern Italian immigrants to the US where it, and many other Italian frozen desserts, proved to be quite popular. However, like the language, the ice cream changed when coming into contact with a new culture. Pistachio and cherry were largely replaced with chocolate and strawberry, and so a new creation, Neapolitan ice cream, was born.

Spumoni hasn’t ceased to exist, not really, though it is more difficult to find in Italy today. The Neapolitan language, however, might vanish in the future, unless we do what we can to help. One of the easiest ways to help is simply by learning more about the language and learning some of the language, too! The more people who speak it, the less likely it is to go extinct, and considering that Neapolitan is classified as vulnerable right now, that still gives you plenty of time to give it a go.

So, if you’d like to learn Neapolitan, go ahead and try it out! It is one of the 150+ languages we carry on our uTalk app and if you learn all of the around 2,500 words from the 60+ topics we cover, you’ll be well on your way to making some new friends. Plus, think about all the food you could order…

Go and try our newest language today and see if you can help this vulnerable language stick around a little longer!

Bona fortuna!

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