And is it a modern thing?

My intuition is that this is more frequent in contemporary writers. I have seen it throughout Ringe's two volumes on English, in Owens on Arabic, and (though I can't bring more examples to mind) in many other places.

I can only imagine that people who use it consistently feel "x, which can have developed from y or z" to be more specific than the (to me) more natural "x, which could have developed from y or z". But I think the could/may/might variants are just as clear, assuming we are talking about an x which is known to have actually developed, as is almost always clear from context.

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    Could and might sound counterfactual to me – could/might have developed from y, but didn’t. But I agree that can sounds a bit odd, too: it sounds like you’re saying x has the option of having developed from y, which doesn’t make logical sense, time-wise. Personally, I’d use may, which is also the most common phrasing in my experience. But I can’t say I noticed this at all when reading Ringe, so it probably doesn’t jar as much in context as when taken out of context. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 17 '20 at 15:00
  • I definitely agree with you on may. I think it jars for me because I had never seen or heard the construction anywhere else (despite being a native speaker). – legatrix Dec 17 '20 at 16:02
  • @brasstacks I think the answers and comments I have received already show full understanding of my question... – legatrix Dec 17 '20 at 19:41

In my reading (but I'm not a native speaker) these do not mean exactly the same thing.

"x, which can have developed from y or z" sounds like x has developed from either y or z (but not from anything else). The author is thus making quite a strong claim about the possible origins of x.

"x, which could/may/might have developed from y or z" sounds like the author is just listing possibilities, without making a claim as to the possibility of other origins one might imagine. The differences between could, may, and might are not exactly clear, although they seem to be in decreasing order of certainty.

But the difference may also simply be idiosyncratic, and also remember that scientific authors have varying levels of English command. Hopefully it is clear from context which reading is intended, and if in doubt, ask the author to be sure.

  • I see, that first point is a really good one actually. I think it hadn't crossed my mind specifically because I would assume that a competent author would list all the relevant possibilities known to him/her, even if using could/may/might. But this gives me a new way to interpret them (/their academic idiolects!) – legatrix Dec 17 '20 at 16:00
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    @legatrix I could(!) see myself using "could" in this sense when I only want to make the argument that the development of x is reasonable/likely, but the exact developmental path is not important. – Keelan Dec 17 '20 at 17:48

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