Many of the characters in Ethan Frome speak in a distinctive dialect that is characteristic of rural Western Massachusetts in the early 1900s. Characters like Harmon Gow and Mrs. Hale, for instance, often use non-traditional grammar, abbreviate words, make frequent use of contractions, and leave off letters and syllables at the beginning and end of words. Wharton also phonetically writes out her characters' accents on certain words—"worst" becomes "wust," for example, while "weren't" is written as "warn't."
By phonetically writing out this dialect, Wharton accomplishes a few goals: first, she establishes a sense of authenticity and authority. Ethan Frome is different from other works by Wharton, which tend to focus on upper-class New York society, but by accurately rendering her characters' dialect, she proves that she understands how to write about the lives of people in lower-class rural communities.
The use of dialect also creates a sense of distance between the reader and the novel's characters. The Narrator, with whom the reader is meant to identify, is an outsider in Starkfield and speaks using proper, unaccented English. This distance helps locate Ethan Frome within the Naturalist literary tradition, which was characterized by its objective narrative style.
Finally, by phonetically writing out her characters' dialect, Wharton draws the reader's attention to the concept of sound, which becomes a major motif over the course of the novel.