In Hindi, there are three common particles, भी, ही, and तो, which are emphatic particles.
As the name implies, these particles, in some way or another, lend an emphasis to some part of a sentence.
The word भी is perhaps the simplest to understand for English speakers. It is used in manners similar to how the words “even”, and “too / also” are used in English.
It can be used as a simple adverb meaning “too” or “also”. This is not technically an emphatic use, but it will be discussed here regardless.
मुझे भी कुत्तों से डर लगता है – “I also am afraid of dogs”.
Note that the English usage of “also” is equivocal. This sentence could mean “In addition to some other person, I am afraid of dogs” or “I am afraid of dogs in addition to other things”. However, the Hindi sentence is explicit; भी succeeds the word that it modifies, so it is clear that this sentence has the former meaning. If the latter meaning were intended, then the sentence would be मुझे कुत्तों से भी डर लगता है.
जो कहता हूं वह करता भी हूं – “I also do what I say”
भी can modify many parts of speech, such as a verb in the previous example.
When used as an emphatic particle, भी can often be translated as “even”.
आप इसका इस्तेमाल करते हुए नहा भी सकते हैं – “You can even bathe while you’re using it!”
यह खाया भी जा सकता है – “It can even be eaten!”
मैं एक घंटे भी नहीं सो पाया – “I wasn’t able to sleep for even an hour”
इस घटना के कारण मैं एक रोटी भी नहीं खा पाया – “Because of this incident, I wasn’t able to eat even one roti”
वह उस किताब से इतना प्यार करता है कि वह उस के साथ सोता भी है – “He loves that book so much that he even sleeps with it!”
क्या यह तरीका काम भी करता है – “Does this method even work?”
The emphatic particle ही has several uses in common with भी when used with verbs:
मैं इतना चिंता कर रहा था कि मैं सो ही नहीं पाया – “I was worrying so much that I couldn’t sleep at all”
Otherwise, ही often has the opposite meaning of भी: inclusive versus exclusive. The particle ही can sometimes be translated as “only”, “just”, “merely”, etc. For instance, consider the following movie quotation (from Don 2):
डॉन को पकड़ना मुश्किल ही नहीं है, नामुमकिन है – “It’s not just hard to catch Don, it’s impossible!”
In this example, ही lends the same emphasis as “just”, namely, it emphasizes that the task of catching Don is beyond mere difficulty.
Consider another example:
मैंने एक ही रोटी खायी – “I ate only one roti”
In the previous example, ही lends the same emphasis as “only”. It emphasizes the insufficiency of a single roti (bread).
The particle ही doesn’t have to be translated with “only” or “just”, however; it often simply emphasizes a word. For instance, the following sentence can have various meanings based on the context:
अमेरिकन लोग अंग्रेजी ही बोलते हैं – “Americans speak only English” or “Americans speak English”
In the previous example, ही can emphasize that Americans only speak one language, or it can emphasize that the language that Americans speak is English.
When used with postpositions, ही can be placed after the postposition or between the postposition and its object:
वाराणसी में ही or वाराणसी ही में
The particle ही is combined with many other words to form emphatic contractions:
यह + ही = यही (इस + ही = इसी, इन + ही = इन्हीं) “this very (thing)”
वह + ही = वही (उस + ही = उसी, उन + ही = उन्हीं) “that very (thing)” (this word also has the idiomatic usage of “the same”)
तुम + ही = तुम्हीं “you (alone)”
हम + ही = हमी “we (alone)”
अब + ही = अभी “right now”
तब + ही = तभी “right then”
जब + ही = जभी “whenever”
सब + ही = सभी “all”
यहां + ही = यहीं “right here”
वहां + ही = वहीँ “right there”
कहां + ही = कहीं “somewhere”
Note that many (but not all) of the contractions involving plural words are nasalized (e.g., तुम्हीं).
The meaning is not always predictable. Often it is emphatic (यहीं = right here), but occasionally it is indefinite (कहीं = “somewhere”).
Note: तो has many other uses. For instance, तो is a common conjunction used in conditional sentences. This article discusses the use of तो as an emphatic particle.
The emphatic particle तो is perhaps the most subtle of all. Essentially, तो contrasts two elements. It often makes a concession, sometimes followed by a qualification. However, तो can also be used simply to emphasize a word, without a contrast.
In some circumstances, the contrast is explicit:
हालांकि यह मेज़ सुन्दर तो नहीं है, पर बहुत मजबूत है – “This table isn’t beautiful, but it’s very sturdy”
The contrast in the previous example is between the two adjectives: beautiful and sturdy. This contrast can be implied with italics: “This table isn’t beautiful, but it’s very sturdy“. There is a concession in this example, i.e., “although…”.
Consider another example:
यह मेज़ तो मजबूत नहीं है, लेकिन दूसरी मेज़ बहुत मजबूत है – “This table isn’t sturdy, but the other table is very sturdy”.
In the previous example, two different tables were contrasted: “This table isn’t sturdy, but the other table is very sturdy”. There is again a concessive force.
मुझे कुत्तों से डर लगता है, पर उसको तो नहीं लगता – “I am afraid of dogs, but he isn’t”
Often, however, the contrast is not explicitly stated:
वह सुन्दर तो है – “She’s beautiful”.
In the previous example, it’s not possible to translate the effect of तो concisely. Although there is no explicit contrast, there is an implicit contrast. It is not clear what that contrast is without any context. For instance, the conversation could proceed as follows:
Speaker 1: वह लड़की बहुत ही सुन्दर है – “That girl is very beautiful!”
Speaker 2: हां, वह सुन्दर तो है, लेकिन बहुत ही चालाक भी है – “Yes, she’s beautiful, but she’s also very cunning”
The emphasis lent by तो can be understood as both a contrast and a concession. Consider some possible English translations:
“Yes, she’s beautiful, I’ll give you that much, but she’s cunning too”
“Yeah, she might be beautiful, but she’s cunning too”
“Yes, I agree that she’s beautiful, but she is cunning as well”
“She is indeed beautiful, however, she is cunning too”
“She’s beautiful alright, but she’s cunning also”
The contrast is between the girl’s positive attribute (beauty) and negative attribute (cunning). The concession is that the girl is beautiful, followed by the qualification that she is treacherous.
There are various ways in this particular example to express the same sense. However, none are as concise as तो.
Consider the movie title “दिल तो पागल है” (“The heart is crazy”). In this example, तो is emphatic. It’s difficult to translate, but something like “The heart, for one, is crazy”, or “As for the heart, it is crazy”, or “The heart indeed is crazy” might approximate the sense vaguely.
Consider another example:
मैं तो शर्मीला हूं – “I am shy”
The sense here is again an emphasis. It can be translated as follows:
“I, for one, am shy” / “I, indeed, am shy”
The idea is that this person in particular is shy.
As always, the context conditions the meaning of this particle:
Speaker 1: मुझे यह मूवी बहुत अच्छी लग रही है – “I’m really enjoying this movie”
Speaker 2: मैं तो इस मोवी को देखते हुए पागल होते जा रहा हूं – “Well I’m going crazy watching this movie!”
The contrast is between the perceptions of the movie of the two people.
The particle तो can emphasize indefiniteness. Thus, it is commonly used with indefinite adjectives and indefinite pronouns.
कुछ तो बोलो न – “Say something, won’t you?”
The emphasis is upon the word कुछ. It emphasizes indefiniteness. This can be rendered in English as follows:
“At least say something, won’t you?”
“Say something, anything at all, won’t you?”
Consider another example:
किसी को तो उससे बात करनी पड़ेगी – “Someone will have to talk to him”
The emphasis in the previous example is on किसी (कोई). The sense could be translated as follows:
“Well, someone or the other is going to have to talk with him”
“At least someone will have to talk to him”
“Someone, I don’t know who, but some person will have to talk to him”
This sentence emphasizes the indefiniteness.
The expression तो सही can be used when making concessions:
वह अमीर तो सही पर खुश नहीं है – “He’s rich, but he’s not happy”
बात तो सही है, लेकिन – “That’s true, but…”
तो, like the other emphatic particles, can emphasize verbs too:
मैंने उसको बुलाया था लेकिन वह आया तो नहीं – “I invited him, but he didn’t come”
This sentence emphasizes the fact that the person didn’t come.
Comparison of the Emphatic Particles
Each of the particles lends a different emphasis. भी is inclusive, ही is exclusive, तो is contrastive, concessive.
There are a few uses with verbs in which भी and ही are similar, but otherwise they lend opposite meanings.
मुझे भी भूख लगी है – “I also am hungry”
मुझे ही भूख लगी है – “I alone am hungry”
मुझे तो भूख लगी है – “I, for one, am hungry”
The first sentence is inclusive, the second is exclusive, the third is simply emphatic.