Nahualá is also a name for the river known more commonly in Guatemalan Spanish as the Río Nahualate. The river has its source in the north of the township of Nahualá, and flows through the center of the “head-town” or cabecera of the township. In K'ichee', the river, the township, and the cabecera are Nawala’, although in the local dialect of Nahualá, the river is called Niwala’, distinguishing it from the name of the township and cabecera.
Nahuala is the location of radio station Radio Nahualá, the successor to the La Voz de Nahuala, which was originally founded with the assistance of Roman Catholic clerics in the 1960s. Nowadays, the station broadcasts primarily in the K'ichee' (Quiché) language, with some broadcasts also done in Kaqchikel (Cakchiquel) and Spanish.
Local residents translate the name Nahualá roughly as “enchanted waters,” “water of the spirits,” and “water of the shamans,” and they often object to the common Spanish translation of the name as “agua de los brujos” (or “water of the witches”). Scholars have typically argued that the name Nahualá derives from a compound of the Nahuatl term nagual or nahual (pronounced NA-wal), meaning “magician” (and related to terms for clear or powerful speech) and the K’ichee’ root ja’, meaning “water.” However, the loanword nawal, which entered the Mayan languages about a thousand years ago, came to denote “spirit[s]” or “divine co-essence[s],” as well as “shaman[s]” in K'ichee'. Some Maya linguists have argued apocryphally that the “true” name should be Nawalja’ or Nawal-ja’, disregarding that the word ja’ is regularly apocopated at the ends of words --especially toponyms-- not only in K’ichee’, but related Mayan languages. Those who promote the neologisms Nawalja’ and Nawal-ja’ also ignore that the pronunciation of the neologisms is inconsistent with the pronunciation in sixteenth-century K’ichee’- and Kaqchikel-Mayan recorded in several early colonial manuscripts written in Latin orthography by members of the native nobility.
For example, the sixteenth-century Título de Totonicapán mentions a Late Post-classic Period site called “navala,” (not “navalha”). Although scholars have argued that the site of the título corresponds to the modern community of Nahualá, it may actually correspond to a pre-colonial Nahua-, K’ichee’- and Tz’utujiil-speaking community located some 20 kilometers to the south: Juan Nahualá or San Juan Nagualapan (later annexed as a ward of the departmental capital of San Antonio Suchitepéquez). The earliest mention of Nahualá occurs in one of the sixteenth-century Kaqchikel-language Xpantzay Títulos, which mentions a site called, “chohohche niguala” which almost certainly corresponds to a modern canton of the cabecera of Nahualá, Chojojche’ (Cho Joj Chee' = "Before [the] Crow Tree"). Several other sixteenth or early seventeenth-century titles in Spanish and K’ichee’ mention Nahualá either directly (as “Navala”) or obliquely, in terms of the landmarks of the community, including Siija (a Late Post-Classic fortress settlement located atop a hill of the same name, 12 kilometers west of Nahualá), Pa Raxk'im ("in the green bunchgrass/thatch," the name of the mountain chain that envelopes most of the township's highland territory, as well as a Nahualeño village of the same name), Chi Q'al[i]b'al ("at the throne" a site located near Siija, mentioned in the Xajil chronicle popularly known as the Anales de los Cakchiqueles), Chwi' Raxon or Pa Raxon ("above the cotinga/verdure/green feathers/wealth," the mountain located in the center of the township's head town), Poop Ab'aj ("Petate-Stone," a site located northeast of the town, along the precolonial road that became part of El Camino Real during the Spanish period), Xajil Juyub', Pa Tz'itee', Chwi' Patan, and others).
Nahualá was settled at least as early as the Pre-Classic Period. Archaeologist John Fox, who conducted archaeological surveys in the area during the 1970s, identified structures from the Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic Periods. Grinding stones dated to as early as 500 BCE found in archaeological sites around Quetzaltenango were likely manufactured near the cabecera of Nahualá, where residents still mine volcanic basalt and carve grinding stones that are sold throughout Guatemala’s western highlands.
Officials of the national government negotiated a treaty between the mayors of Nahualá and Ixtahuacán to allow for the re-location of Ixtahuacán’s cabecera. However, residents of Ixtahuacán occupied the land in question early, before the treaty was completely negotiated, before the land had been surveyed, and before any compensation had been paid to the town of Nahualá and to the private owners of land in the area. Several Nahualeños were killed and injured by Ixtahuacanecos during conflicts that resulted from Ixtahuacán’s precipitous occupation of the Chwi’ Patan, which many Nahualeños consider a theft. The national government and the elected local governments or Nahualá and Ixtahuacán subsequently agreed to a modification of the original agreement, but compensation has still not been paid completely. Many Nahualeños refuse to accept the agreement, arguing that neither the general population nor Nahualá’s local elders (known as principales in Spanish and as ri’j’laab’ in K’ichee’) have been given an opportunity to approve the treaty, even though both traditionally hold a higher authority than the elected local officials (such as the town mayor).
Since 1999, the government of the Republic of Guatemala has repeatedly attempted to resolve the conflict between the communities by fixing a border between their respective territories, but its efforts have been thwarted not only by continuing confrontations and land-invasions, but also by a misunderstanding of the complexity of indigenous systems of land-use and property.
Since the 1970s, numerous linguists have produced studies of the K’ichee’ dialect of Nahualá, believing that it was a particularly conservative dialect in terms of phonology and lexicon. Some indigenous Mayas trained linguists have even advocated that the official K’ichee’ alphabet used by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG) should reflect the phonology of the Nahualá. The dialect of Nahualá preserves sounds that have been lost in other K'ichee' communities, including the K'ichee' towns that are most associated with the administration of the pre-colonial K'ichee' State, such as Q'uma'rka'aaj (now Santa Cruz del Quiché) and Chwi' Meq'ina' (San Miguel Totonicapán). Nahualá’s local dialect preserves an ancient Proto-Mayan distinction between five long vowels (aa, ee, ii, oo, uu) and five short vowels (a, e, i, o , u). It is for this conservative linguistic feature that Guatemalan and foreign linguists have actively sought to have the language called "K'ichee'," rather than K'iche' or Quiché.
Unlike the most prominent K'ichee' dialects, the Nahualá dialect of K'ichee' also has a phoneme /h/ and a phoneme /ŋ/ (or eŋma), both of which occur only at the ends of words, almost exclusively after short vowels. Linguists have established firmly that the /h/ is a reflex of a proto-Mayan */h/. Linguists have not thoroughly investigated the origin of the /ŋ/ phoneme, which occurs only in a small number of words, and therefore is not believed to have enough "phonemic weight" to deserve official recognition.