A contrived example, but: if I said something like "The Penguin Wars" (Yes, it's a silly example but this is a serious question I promise), such a phrase (bare of any conventional denotations) could mean any number of things:

  • The war in which penguins fought humans
  • The war between two groups of penguins
  • The war in which two human nations used penguins as ammunition against each other
  • The war in which two human nations fought each other over penguins
  • The war to liberate penguins, etc. (This is still a serious question).

The point here is that there seems to be a great deal of work required on the part of the interpreter in order to make sense of even something as simple as an adjectival phrase. I imagine this issue doesn't surface much in daily conversation because usually one meaning seems more likely/sane than others. So if I say "The Vietnam War‎", even someone unfamiliar with the historical event can safely infer this phrase refers to a war fought against/on the soil of Vietnam. But it's silly examples like "Penguin Wars" that reveal that there a sort of "semantic glue" holding together the noun and the adjective, connecting them in a way that creates meaningful utterance out of what is, really, just a sequence of words: "Penguin" "Wars".

What is this sort of "semantic glue"?

  • I imagine this is the sort of question that can be answered with a single link to wikipedia. – pseudosudo Dec 18 '15 at 4:08

The examples you give aren't really cases of adjectives modifying noun, but cases of nouns modifying nouns. In the case of "The Penguin Wars", "Penguin" is called an attributive noun or a noun adjunct. Whereas the meaning of adjectives modifying nouns is usually more transparent (e.g. the meaning of blue in "the blue penguin" is pretty obvious), attributive nouns are more ambiguous.
In fact, the function of attributive nouns is about as broad as the genitive, which has many functions which only context can disambiguate. Note that "The Penguin Wars" might also be called "The War of the Penguins". The wikipedia article for the genitive case lists many functions of the genitive, and several of these can also be expressed with attributive nouns, as these examples show:

  • Possession: government property
  • Composition / Partitive: a marble statue
  • Participation in an action: a car wash
  • Reference: blood pressure
  • Origin: Canada goose

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